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Dyeing to know: Easter egg science lesson

Beets and blueberries

Of all the food additives and ingredients that make me sweat, food coloring is the worst. Because, you see, it’s all about looks. Food manufacturers don’t claim that artificial colors improve the “integrity of food and beverage products,” as they do with high-fructose corn syrup. (Seriously. Read this.) They don’t claim that fake colors help preserve food or improve texture or boost flavor. No. For all the semantic gymnastics required to justify other questionable ingredients, manufacturers’ case for fake food coloring comes down to this: It makes food look good. 

Fake food, that is. Like “fruit” snacks that get their color not from the product’s fruit concentrate, but from synthetic chemicals named Red 40, Yellow 5 and Blue 1. Or mac & cheese colored with Yellow 5 and Yellow 6. Or the countless packaged foods that use color to simulate the presence of actual fruits and vegetables. Even some oranges are treated with Citrus Red 2 to intensify the orange color. Oranges colored with fake orange. Jaw-dropper. 

Forget that artificial colors have been linked* to hyperactivity, learning difficulties and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. (Effects noted as long ago as the 1970s and as recently as 2007.) Or that some research connects food dyes with cancer and other health problems. Or that the U.K. Food Standards Agency** (which funded the 2007 study) encourages parents and manufacturers to avoid food dyes, a move that prompted the European Parliament to require dye warning labels. 

No. If that bright blue or pink makes someone want to buy it — and preferably a 3-foot-tall someone — then job well-done. 

And get this: Those changes in Europe led some U.S. food companies to drop (cheap) fake dye in favor of (expensive) natural colors in products it sells overseas, but not here at home. Infuriating, right?  

Last year, Blue 1
Next year, red cabbage

No surprise, then, that we try really hard to avoid food dyes. If I tell my daughter “there’s artificial color in this,” she knows her chances of eating it are slim. There’s one big exception, and that’s her birthday cake. It’s the only time I put my cake-decorating class to good use, so those colors had better be Disney perfect, and I’ve had lousy luck getting natural colorings to work consistently with frosting. Not anymore, though: A friend just turned me on to the India Tree brand, so next birthday I’m going all-natural. 

I’ve been beating this drum for so long that Tess knows artificial colors are bad for her. She has moments when only the most brightly colored crack will do, but often she realizes after a bite or two that just because something  is pretty doesn’t mean it tastes good. Still, I kept wishing there was some way to make the issue more tangible for her. 

Which brings me (finally) to my eggsperiment. It’s Easter. Time to color eggs. Why not use fruits and vegetables to dye them naturally? And have a little plant-science lesson on the side? Out came the neon dye tablets leftover from last year. (We dyed. We did not eat.) Then the test tubes from a science kit. Plop, plop, fizz, fizz — oh what a fake color that is. 

Me to Tess: “Have you ever seen colors like that in nature?” 

Tess: a dutiful grimace and shake of the head. 

On to the stove, where we filled pots with eggs, water and various fruits, vegetables and juices. (Here’s wheredirect you to folks more kitchen-crafty than me, so you, too, can experience the joy of boiling eggs along with beets and blueberry juice.) 

We used brown eggs (instead of the recommended white eggs), so the colors were unpredictable. The beets produced a warm dark brown. Spinach didn’t take at all.  The blueberry juice, however, made a deep purple that got a “cool” out of my daughter. And because she really wants pink eggs, we’re going to try another batch with raspberry or pomegranate juice. 

As each pot filled with the color of the cooking produce, we talked about how plants have so many beautiful natural colors and how each color represents nutrients our bodies need. With color extracts literally seeping into the water, there was no question at all where they came from, or that we can find all the color we need without putting on a lab coat. 

Not that Tess was entirely sold. She’s since informed me that she wants to go back to the fake dyes “because I like the pretty colors.” But, she added (insert dramatic pause), “we don’t have to eat them.” 

What’s your stance on artificial colors? And how have you explained it to your kids? 

* The Center for Science in the Public Interest has urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban food dyes and is collecting personal stories to share with legislators. 

 ** The European Food Safety Authority, an independent agency, took a more conservative approach. But it plans to re-evaluate all colors by mid-2011. 

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{ 13 comments… add one }

  • Ryan Platte April 2, 2010, 5:01 pm

    Orthodox Christians have been dying their eggs with onion skins for a long, long time.


    • Christina April 2, 2010, 5:07 pm

      I came across several onion-skin methods and definitely will try that some time. The colors are spectacular.

  • Angie April 21, 2010, 8:20 pm

    My take? Well, you’ve met my daughter. You’ve seen her at her worst. And you’ve seen her now off of food dye (and dairy). Is she perfect? No. Is there work to be done? Yes. But have there been improvements? Yup. The biggest improvement we have noticed is that she is “available” when there is a problem to deal with. She owns up to her behavior now. She does her time-out with much more ease than before. The 30 minute tantrums have stopped. She can control herself. I will never forget the day we figured out that it was the dye. She was in an ear infection “coma”. You know the one. Fever, flushed, chills, pain, exhaustion, whiney, all-around misery. She couldn’t stand up in the doctor’s office. I had to carry her. She couldn’t sit up on the exam table. Raging double ear infection. They gave her a chewable amox tablet, pink of course, and a chewable ibu tablet (also pink). 30 minutes later she was running around in circles in the livingroom screaming her head off. She was completely crazy. A friend of ours who was there and saw her comatosed and then completely nuts made a comment saying, “Wow! The power of antibiotics!” When others noticed a drastic change in her “craziness” I then knew……RED DYE!!! She’s been dye-free since Novemeber and as hard as it has been sometimes, it was the best choice I have ever made for her.

    • Christina April 21, 2010, 9:16 pm

      Angie, that’s an amazing story. Have you considered submitting that to CSPI? They’re collecting stories like this as part of their campaign to ban food dyes. Here’s the link.

    • erisgrrrl June 12, 2010, 11:38 pm

      Oh Angie I feel for you! I’m glad you were able to figure it out and eliminate the causes. It was very frustrating to see our son act in such a way and it was really emotionally hard on us. I assume it was very much the same for you!

      My son has the exact same issue with food dyes! You could see it in his face that he was just completely not in his body. His eyes were wild and he had zero control! We also figured it out due to medication. I’ve never heard/read anyone “verbalize” it as exactly as we lived it the way you did!

      He is also very sensitive to sodium benzoate (a very common preservative- in pretty much EVERY liquid child medicine) although it has a different effect – he cries and cries and cries about nothing. We told everyone who has contact with him that he is allergic to it (which from what I’ve read is true… the behaviors are caused by an allergy to the dye) and after the first few months it’s just normal now.

      We did have to send “back up snacks” to school in case someone slipped and brought in “Connor poison.” (We call it this in jest… he knows it’s not actually poison but that it’s a gross chemical he shouldn’t eat and that makes him sick) We were also the ones that always had to volunteer to make home-made frosting for parties b/c store bought has colors. We had to make home-made marshmallows for Christmas-time parties. We had to suss out naturally colored jelly beans at Halloween and Easter. He doesn’t ask for things that look like they have dye in them, and we are in the habit of checking every single thing we buy for colors. The colors are in the stupidest things… Life cereal?!?! It’s brown folks! Why does it need to be brown-er?!?! He gets so angry when there are colors in things that don’t make sense and he often asks us to write letters to food companies to tell them to stop using the dyes.

      People are astonished that we have to check everything. I’m astonished that anyone who has a child with behavioral issues doesn’t do the same thing!

      I think that overall it has been good for us because it’s forced us to really examine what we eat. We’ve never pumped him full of garbage-y non-food but we’re extra careful now and it makes me really proud! :D Also, since he doesn’t get most candies or other pre-made junk foods his palate isn’t used to those tastes so he is far more open to other, more natural, healthy foods. I mean…. he often asks for home-made pickled beets for dessert! :D

      Thanks Angie for sharing your experience! It always helps to be validated when you have such an “unusual” circumstance! And to you Christina for posting about the dyes!

  • Angie June 14, 2010, 12:07 am

    Erisgrrrl, It’s so very nice to hear from another parent who has the same issue! My family (outside me son Connor :0) and my husband) think I’m nuts. They don’t understand why I’m doing it. My grandmother askes me daily if its really working and how can I deny her food. And on 2 separate occasions, my mom & sister still gave her dairly and dyes after I told them not to. They didn’t see how “a little bit” would hurt. They just don’t get it. They didn’t see her afterwards crying uncontrolably. They didn’t hear her say “Mommy I just can’t stop!” It’s very unfortunate because now I don’t feel comfortable leaving her in their care anymore. Mackenzie will choose red strawberries over of red candy. She would rather munch on orange carrots than orange cheetos. She would rather slurp an Edy’s fruit bar instead of a popcicle. She knows what “bad foods” do to her and she doesn’t like it.

    I hear ya about parents not looking at food that their kids eat. I have spoken to a parent of one of my students several times about his behavior. He’s a smart boy…..one of my highest, But he’s like the energizer bunny. Even when he sits, his hands shake. He has so much crap in his diet. And he’s just one of many in my school. It makes me angry and sad to see it.

    I don’t let people’s astonishment bother me anymore. If anyone questions it, I just tell them that I’m making better food choices for my kids because I love them and I want them to be healthy. I’m lucky to have supportive friends. Between my dietary issues and now Mackenzie’s, they are accommodating when they need to. Several of them have even begun to buy different foods for thier own kids.

    I realize that this stuff isn’t gonna go away any time soon so I’m just gonna have to deal with it. I’ve become a master at smuggling food nt the movie theater!

    http://www.indiatree.com has all-natural food dyes. I’ve heard the colors are pretty decent.

  • Puneet September 2, 2010, 2:18 am

    The difference in color of natural alternatives from the artificial colors we have got accustomed to is probably a major impediment to the switch by food manufacturers who I am sure would play safe and go for natural colors otherwise.
    So unless the government bans artificial colors and there is a level playing field for all, I think we will have to “educate” our eyes to respond favorably to the somewhat duller shades of natural colors – which is quite difficult as you discovered when baking your birthday cake.

  • erisgrrrl September 2, 2010, 5:00 pm

    Sorry Puneet but I have to disagree with the statement “…is probably a major impediment to the switch by food manufacturers who I am sure would play safe and go for natural colors otherwise.”
    I’m not one to be into conspiracies or to demonize corporations but I would bet my very last dollar that our aesthetics have little to no baring on food companies switching to artificial colors. Profit is the major (only?) motivation for this. Natural food dyes are more difficult to process, are less stable and require much higher “doses” to achieve rich color. Just go look at the store – you can buy a 4 pack of neon food dyes for about $2. A single tiny bottle of natural blue or green will run about $8-11!

    Our desire for neon green and yellow cupcakes didn’t cause the change, the change fed our desire. Had we never known such a thing was possible we would’ve all just kept on truckin’ with our only slightly pink strawberry frosting or pastel yellow Easter eggs!

    • Christina September 3, 2010, 1:47 am

      I think erisgrrrl is right. Food manufacturers use artificial colors (and other chemical additives) because they’re cheap. They also do it because somewhere along the line, some marketer or psychologist or other genius did some research showing that kids like bright colors, and decided, therefore, that the way to entice kids is to create food the same color as toys.

      In our case, the birthday cakes have been an odd sort of exception, since I’ve viewed those as more decoration than food. But, as I mentioned in the post, that’s coming to an end. This year it’s all-natural, baby.

  • erisgrrrl September 3, 2010, 12:29 pm

    I do sometimes feel bad about the birthday cakes thing. Who doesn’t want a fantastically decorated, out of this world amazing cake for their birthday? I mean, I’m 32 years old and I STILL gaze longingly at the crazy cakes in the grocery store bakery cases. Then I remember that I’ve read the ingredients for those cakes – and the cake has more garbage in it than that rainbow of icing on top!

    But, 2 years ago we I did make Connor a pretty fabulous birthday cake using all natural colors. It was a Thomas the Tank Engine cake complete with grass and mountains and rails for the trains to drive on. It was really fun. The colors weren’t nearly as vivid as they could have been… but I was much happier knowing that I did it all myself and that there was nothing gross in it! Then last year he had a Halloween birthday so we made skull shaped cakes and just glazed them with a basic sugar glaze so you could really see the shape, and served them with “blood sauce” (aka homemade raspberry puree).

    Christina- good luck on the natural cakes! I’d LOVE to see pix of your creations!!

    • Christina September 3, 2010, 12:46 pm

      I’ve actually made some pretty cool cakes over the years, including a gingerbread log cabin set atop a cake “book” for a Little House in the Big Woods party. And this sort of crazy-awesome Itsy Bitsy Spider cake. So I should post pics! Maybe I’ll do some BFD and AFD shots. (As in: “before (natural) food dye” and “after (natural) food dye.”)

      And I do take solace in the fact that, aside from the food dye, everything else in those cakes was wholesome as could be. (Grocery-store birthday cakes pretty well gross me out.)

  • Jane Hersey December 9, 2010, 1:55 pm

    Hi Christina,
    I’m so happy to learn of your site and the great information you are sharing! India Tree is one of the companies listed in our Foodlist & Shopping Guide that the Feingold Association publishes. These books list thousands of brand name products that we have researched and are free of the worst of the additives.
    We often show families how to deal with the uncooperative relatives. Our October newsletter (Pure Facts) describes a simple experiment growing plants — in this case it’s wheat grass. There are 6 groups, each is watered with a different option. Four have dyes, one has aspartame and the 6th has pure water. The results are astonishing!
    If anyone would like me to send an electronic copy of the newsletter, contact me at JaneFAUS@aol.com.
    Another tool we use is to show the 14-minute film on our home page (www.feingold.org) and let folks know that those pretty colors hide some ugly truths, including the fact that they are made from petroleum.
    I have written a little book designed to explain this in simple, humorous terms. It’s called “Healthier Food for Busy People.”
    In my big book (“Why Can’t My Child Behave?”) I discuss strategies to use with the relatives. Of course one of the most effective is — when you arrive at the family gathering — to announce “Whoever turns him on gets to take him home and keep him for 3 days.” This generally strikes fear into their hearts and has been very effective.
    If you would like copies of the 2 books to review, I’ll be glad to send them; I’ll need a full postal address.

    • Christina December 9, 2010, 2:08 pm

      Jane, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing these resources. Love the wheatgrass experiment. I’ll also contact you off-board.

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