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I am so over the rainbow (cake)

One of these things is not like the others

Last year at this time, I ranted a bit about fake green St. Patrick’s Day food and reclaiming green as a natural color. Then I wrote a post about making natural Easter egg dyes. This year, I’m tackling another colorful spring icon: rainbows.
Not the kind in the sky. Not the kind that leads to a pot of gold. No. The kind that has overtaken the cake world. Need visual confirmation of this trend? Do a Google image search for “rainbow cakes.”  Holy petrochemical pastries, Batman!
Not so long ago, I, too, junked up my daughter’s birthday cake with artificial colors. We’d avoided dyes in every other respect, but I saw the cake frosting as a once-a-year thing, more decoration than food. So I let that slide. Not anymore, though. Two birthdays ago, I kicked that final toxic crutch to the curb. The more I’ve learned, the more I’ve grown wary of food dye in any amount. Artificial colors exist solely to trick and manipulate. They’re linked to long-term health problems. They can have devastating effects on children’s behavior and ability to learn. And government regulators and food manufacturers have failed to prove dye safety.
In short: All risk. No benefit. And my belief, now, that artificial dyes have no legitimate place in our food supply.
When I began seeing rainbow cakes at every turn, and found myself gagging and having unkind thoughts about the bakers, I thought, well, aren’t I some kind of hypocrite? How do I know that these aren’t everyone else’s once-a-year exceptions?
The thing is — aside from the epic generosity of that statement — what’s so stunning about rainbow cakes is the saturation. It’s not just the frosting. They have solid color in every single bite. Solid chemicals in every single bite. And most (it seems) are baked for kids. I’ve seen lots of proud recipe comments along the lines of: “People literally gasped when I cut the first slice and they saw the rainbow inside.” But who’s to say those were approving gasps? I’m guessing a few were more along the lines of: “OMG-you’re-going-to-serve-that-to-my-kid?!”

Natural. Like a real rainbow.

But take heart! You don’t have to give up rainbow cakes just because you give up artificial colors. Kelsey Hilts, who blogs at Itsy Bitsy Foodies, developed a gorgeous rainbow cake with colors not from petrochemicals, but from beet juice, carrot juice, egg yolk, spinach juice, blueberry juice and blackberry juice. And unlike the ultrabright colors of artificial dyes, Kelsey’s cake actually looks like the natural spectrum it’s trying to emulate. Think about it: When’s the last time you looked up after a rainstorm and saw a neon arc streaking the sky?

Want to learn more about artificial colors? Some posts from the Spoonfed archives:
The color of trouble (January 22, 2011)
An overview of food dyes and the problems they cause, plus our farewell to neon birthday cake. Also a great discussion in the comments about natural dye alternatives.
Includes links to some excellent reading on the risks and effects of food dyes, and the many ways in which the United States lags other countries in addressing the issue. Also the hypocrisy of American companies continuing to use chemical colors here while selling natural alternatives overseas.
Written after FDA hearings last year failed to produce dye warning labels, this is a comprehensive look at why the United States continues to allow risky additives in our food supply. Includes an exploration of the precautionary principle (which shifts the burden from proving harm to proving safety). Also includes tips on avoiding food dyes and making your concerns heard.
Spoonfed is now on Facebook. You’ll find links to blog posts, news and commentary on raising food-literate kids, questions and comments from readers, voices, viewpoints, the works. Stop by, like the page, chime in, spread the word. (Thanks.)
Photo credits for top picture: Natural cake (left) from Itsy Bitsy Foodies. Neon cake (right) from Martha Stewart. Rainbow (middle) from Mother Nature.
Digiprove sealCopyright protected by Digiprove © 2012 Christina Le Beau
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{ 32 comments… add one }

  • Vanessa March 14, 2012, 12:11 pm

    Ever since I read that post of yours about natural easter egg dyeing, those bright rainbow cakes also make me gag. In fact any frosting that is suspiciously bright makes me just go “yeugh” (which is yuck with a hoity toity accent). I must wonder though… how they get frosting so “white” ? I usually only make butter cream, but the butter always makes my frosting a little more yellow than I’d like (totally normal butter – not artificial). Just wondering!?

    • Christina March 14, 2012, 12:16 pm

      Vanessa: Kelsey’s cake uses buttercream topped by whipped cream. So that explains it! (And yum.) Check out the link in the post for her full recipe.

    • Heather April 15, 2012, 10:50 am

      I agree about the colors. My son has problems with the colors so we’ve been avoiding them for years. It always makes me sad when he sees all of these crazy cakes that he just can’t have. Actually it kind of makes me sad when *I* see all those bright colors too! It’s so…. vibrant and happy looking (emphasis on happy LOOKING b/c I know what it really is!).

      But! The white stuff usually has titanium dioxide in it to make it more white!

  • Dawn (KitchenTravels) March 14, 2012, 12:45 pm

    Hooray! I stopped using artificial food coloring more than a year ago. It just seemed pointless, and honestly, kind of gross. If you look at the “famous” desserts from most other countries, they rarely – if ever – use food coloring. So many natural alternatives, why bother with the fake stuff? GORGEOUS rainbow cake from Itsy Bitsy Foodies! xo

  • Susan of Litttle Ladies Who Lunch March 14, 2012, 1:33 pm

    Have I told you lately that I love you?

    • Christina March 14, 2012, 1:51 pm

      This needs a “like” button like on Facebook. LOL.

  • Kira March 14, 2012, 5:33 pm

    A big interest of mine in farming is that I grow and display a gorgeous rainbow of produce. Real food is never neon and in fact, excessive brightness of color often indicates toxicity in nature! (Dart frogs or certain insects and their larvae, for example.) It’s supposed to be a big “DO NOT EAT” sign.

    • Christina March 14, 2012, 5:48 pm

      Love that, Kira. Nature gets it right again.

  • Lynn Donahue March 14, 2012, 8:53 pm

    Thanks, Chris, for this article. I’m in the process myself of converting to once in a while use of food dyes to never and am thankful for your link to an alternative.

    Check out this webinar I’m signed up for on effects of food on kids’ behavior: http://www.adoptionlearningpartners.org/catalog/webinars/snack-play-love.cfm.

  • kristi March 15, 2012, 6:27 am

    Love, love, love. I would be one of those parents gasping in horror (not with impressed joy) after an adult cut into that cake at a kid’s birthday party. I switched to using India Tree natural food dyes last year for my kids’ cakes, and while the color isn’t brilliant neon (perfectly fine with me, thank you very much) the cakes are still beautiful.

    I cannot imagine soaking my kid’s cake in artificial food dye. Never. Ever.

    PS: Your title is awesome. As are you. The end.

  • Jeanne @JollyTomato March 15, 2012, 12:23 pm

    YES! Thank you for picking up on this rainbow cake trend, a pet peeve of mine. Some of the rainbow desserts I’ve seen with those garish colors are truly the stuff of nightmares. I have been experimenting all this month with various ways of making green foods, including spinach frosting, for St. Patrick’s Day. Thought you might like to see a green cake I made with rainbow chard: http://www.jollytomato.com/2012/03/08/the-eating-of-the-green/

    • Jen April 1, 2012, 11:17 am

      Avocado butter cream frosting is yummy. Just substitute avocado for the butter (use about 2 small avocados), 2 tsp lemon juice so it doesn’t go brown and sweeten how you like it. We use avocado for our shakes and smoothies all the time.

  • Lisa D (This Little Piggy) March 16, 2012, 10:11 am

    Love this (the natural one!) – truly spectacular! It is horrific some of the creations that are served to little ones.

  • Kelly March 19, 2012, 3:49 pm
  • Jen @ TheUnProcessed Kitchen March 22, 2012, 10:52 pm

    Ugh, the rainbow cake!! I actually got into a snippy online conversation with someone who said I was no fun because I wouldn’t make a cake like that for my kids. Because “just a few drops of food dye won’t hurt your kids. Lighten up”. I threw out neurotoxins and it was all over, I was now a horrible, nerdy mom.

    It’s nice to see a naturally colored cake :)

  • Lisa March 23, 2012, 10:55 pm

    Thank you. From the Mom of a little princess that keeps telling me she’ll be “allowed to eat stuff like that when she gets older”. Now I can make one for her. It’s been a tough road. Her reactions are not behavior related. She breaks out in huge hives on her face. She wears a medic alert bracelet, has special soap at school and never, ever gets to eat the *cool* stuff.

    Thanks again. (with many tears)

  • Jen April 1, 2012, 11:13 am

    Your cake is so pretty. I have never made a rainbow cake for my kids and probably never will. And they are happy, well adjusted kids! Imagine that!

  • Mary August 5, 2012, 10:50 pm

    Stumbled upon your blog from a search engine. Great post, thank you!! My son has a terrible reaction when he consumes artificial dyes (took me a long time to figure it out); he loses all control, becomes combative, and will not listen to reason. I can always tell when he has eaten it. I hope more people will spread the word and stop buying this junk!! Why are we giving our children these chemicals?

  • Sera March 1, 2013, 8:25 pm

    I don’t understand the red velvet craze. People seem to think it’s a favour, but it’s chocolate with a bucketload of food colouring. Ew.

    • Brittany March 11, 2013, 2:07 pm

      Yeah, I don’t get red velvet either. I’ve always thought it was gross anyway but then I found out that it’s just food coloring and nothing special anyway. Yuck!

    • colleen March 11, 2013, 11:26 pm

      Thank You !!!

    • Rachel June 24, 2013, 7:38 pm

      I asked a baker about this once and she said people who dump a load of red food coloring into chocolate cake and call it red velvet have it all wrong. It’s supposed to be a slightly chocolate cake with an acidic flavor. I believe it was originally made with beets for the red color, and the acidity has to do with keeping the beets red and not purple.

      Here’s a link to a blog post where the author made a truly gorgeous red velvet cake with no artificial coloring: http://www.sophistimom.com/red-velvet-cake-all-natural-no-red-dye/

      I’m going to try it soon!

      • Christina June 24, 2013, 8:01 pm

        Rachel: I think the original red-velvet cake got its name from the reddish hue produced when natural cocoa powder reacted with the acid in buttermilk or vinegar. It was really more deep brown than red, but then of course someone decided to amp up the red factor with dyes! That beet cake looks really interesting!

  • Jjmeleri March 11, 2013, 2:01 pm

    If I give LilMan a rainbow cake with dye’s in will be running after him for atleast a week as he get very very very hyper (calls him self Flappy the Penguin) so will never have a rainbow cake unless it colourd the natural way….

  • Brittany March 11, 2013, 2:07 pm

    I like the natural colors better than the artificial anyway! Thanks for sharing, I’ll have to try it. :)

  • Rachel June 20, 2013, 3:13 pm

    I’ve been using India Tree dye too, and even recommending it on my blog…but I have to admit to being a little disappointed with it. I can’t seem to get the knack of creating any appealing colors with it. What’s the trick?! I wanted pink…nothing close! I had a slight orange color instead. Realy pale and watery looking.
    I also love the idea of using natural things like you mentioned for dyes…like beets, spinach, etc. But I worry about the flavor. Will the spinach and beets affect the sweet flavor of icing? Is it noticeable?

    • Christina June 20, 2013, 9:57 pm

      Rachel: I’ve heard other people say they’ve had trouble, but I’ve been really pleased with the colors. I just keep monkeying around until I get it right. It does help that I’m married to a color scientist, LOL, because I’ll tell him where I want to end up and ask which color I should add to get there! But a lot of it is just experimentation. As for using things like spinach and beets: I’ve personally never done that for frosting, but the Itsy Bitsy Foodies link addresses that, and we had a good discussion about that issue in these comments, too: The color of trouble. Hope that helps!

      • Rachel June 25, 2013, 3:30 pm

        Thank you Christina! I’ll go check out that link. I will have to try to mess around with the India Tree dyes too…tough to get the right colors with it. Thanks again! :)

  • Melanie@bb March 5, 2014, 4:52 pm

    I wouldn’t be psyched if my kid was served that and I’ve never used dyes in my cake. But still, I view this like sugary cakes– typical for kids’ parties but every once in a while is fine.

    • Christina March 5, 2014, 9:05 pm

      Melanie: As you could probably tell from this post (and others linked within), I don’t think artificial food dyes should be consumed at all. In fact, I’d like to see them abolished from our food supply. Because it’s not just birthday cakes. There’s dye in a shocking number of foods consumed by kids on a daily basis.

  • Marj October 16, 2014, 2:47 pm

    Hopefully I could get to try this too. Just wondering if you’ve tried using anatto seeds to use for yellow coloring? I use it for cooking but I never thought about using it for baking until I read this. It imparts the color but no flavor . You just have to buy them in Asian stores.

    • Christina October 16, 2014, 11:18 pm

      Marj: I have not tried that, but it’s an interesting idea!

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