9 Safe, Natural Ways to Color Your Food

It's easy to add both nutrients and fun to your meals
Natural food dyes

Special occasions seem to call for brightly colored foods. Birthday cakes show swirls of colored icing. Holiday cookies and Easter eggs are adorned in different hues. Even St. Patrick’s Day beer traditionally can take on a green tint.

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It’s fun to experiment with turning your favorite foods different colors, but you don’t necessarily need food coloring or dyes to do it, says dietitian Laura Jeffers, MEd, RD, LD.

“There are more natural ways than to reach for that fake bottled coloring in your baking cupboard,” she says.

What the best way to turn foods different colors?

When you use more natural options, you’ll find more benefits than just fun-colored food, Jeffers says. 

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“You can color foods and actually enhance nutrition at the same time using foods that are naturally colored — such as dark green vegetables or fruit,” Jeffers says. 

Many foods already have rich pigments that easily blend right into your favorite recipes.

For example, to make green, pink or purple smoothies just adjust your use of greens (like kale or spinach) and berries (like strawberries, blueberries, raspberries). The more you add, the more colorful and healthier they get!

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Here, Jeffers explores nine more healthier, more colorful ideas:

  1. Juice your veggies. Include things like kale, spinach, parsley, or bell peppers for a nutritious green punch. Add apples, grapes or peaches to sweeten things. Or simply mix the green juice into light-colored dressings — even cake batters — to add a hint of green color. About two teaspoons is all you need.
  2. Use water from boiled veggies or fruit. You can boil green vegetables like peas, or red fruits like cranberries for example, to extract the coloring. Then use the colored water that’s left behind to color other foods and recipes. It’s an easy, natural way to add coloring to food.
  3. Try Japanese green tea. Try Matcha tea, which is a finely milled or powder green tea from Japan. Besides drinking it as a tea, you can use it directly as an ingredient in many recipes. It not only turns foods green and has a rich flavor that goes with many things but it’s also rich in nutrients, antioxidants and fiber.
  4. Make green mac ‘n’ cheese with greens! Some kids love the idea of green macaroni and cheese, and it’s a sneaky way to include some extra greens in your child’s diet. Make your macaroni and cheese green by taking a spinach puree or even avocado and mixing it with the cheese sauce to get that green color.
  5. Beets offer a natural way to color foods red or pink. They’re also a good source of vitamin C, iron and magnesium. Look for the round, purplish-red kind. If you’re making your own cake or cupcake frosting, start by juicing a teaspoon or two of beets. Then add the juice to your frosting and blend!
  6. Pomegranate juice can create a pinkish-red hue. It can be tricky to get the color right, but much easier if you don’t mind pomegranate flavor in whatever you are making. Try red velvet cupcakes that include boiled down pomegranate juice.
  7. Turmeric or saffron can make foods yellow. As your rice is cooking try adding turmeric for a golden yellow color. Saffron works too but is a more expensive option. If you go with the fresh variety you may have to soak the stems in hot water/stock for 20 minutes before you add it to your dish. You can grind saffron with a mortar and a pestle to make the color soak in better.
  8. Paprika can give an orange or deeper orange-red color. Depending on the peppers used in the paprika, there will be different color variations. Heating paprika releases both color and flavor. Experiment with sprinkling ground, unheated paprika on foods when you want to add color, but not flavor.
  9. Boiled purple onion peels can give a deep orange color. Add this to boiled eggs. Simply boil the outer peels of onion in water with the eggs. The longer the eggs stay in the water, the darker the color.

Keep both flavor and color in mind. Natural coloring made from foods tends to be less vivid than artificial color additives, Jeffers notes. So it can be harder to control the color and consistency. Also, using food-based color can introduce other flavors. But this can work well if the flavor enhances the food.

“Remember, the more vivid the color, the more likely it is that the taste is also affected,” she says. “It’s a good idea to experiment — and a lot of fun, too. You can even have your kids take part as a fun family activity.”

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