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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.

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.

Food-dye news every skeptic should read (March 27, 2011)
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.

A dye-free future? We decide. (April 22, 2011)
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.

Photo credits for top picture: Natural cake (left) from Itsy Bitsy Foodies. Neon cake (right) from Martha Stewart. Rainbow (middle) from Mother Nature.


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