Food colouring: Less is more, and store wisely
Food colouring enhances the appearance of food, and is an important part of any baker's arsenal. Use sparingly, however, as it is easier to add more than to take out, and a few drops go a long way. Like other pantry items, food colouring should be stored in a cool and dark place. If its original packaging is damaged or if it is not sealed properly, liquid and gel colours will dry out very soon, so it is important to ensure the lids fit properly before storing.
What's the difference between liquid, gel, and powder food colouring?
Most home cooks know food colouring as tiny bottles found at supermarkets, but there is also colouring gel or paste, as well as powder. Paste and powder food colouring can be found in cake decorating shops and specialty markets.
Liquid food colouring is commonly used for small batches of icing or cake batter. It is inexpensive and can be easily found at supermarkets, but it can dilute in mixtures and is best used for more pastel colours.
For professionals who work on large batches and need more vivid colours, they use gel or paste colours. Food colouring paste is great for cream-based mixtures, such as buttercream and fondant, as it does not affect the consistency of the mixture. It is also used for foods that may seize or separate with the addition of water, such as white chocolate.
Colouring dry foods
Finally, food colouring powder is best used to tint foods that need to stay dry, such as sugar and coconut flakes. It is also suitable for royal icing and gum paste, but not buttercream frosting, as the resulting colour will not be sharp enough.
Page 1 of 2Food colouring safety
Within Canada, the Canadian Food and Drug Act and Regulations govern the use of food additives. Typically, food colouring contains a solvent (such as propylene glycol or glycerine), colour, and preservatives (such as sodium benzoate or citric acid).
Health concerns about food colouring usually stem from the pigments, which can come from many sources, depending on the colour. For example, natural pigments to create red food colouring can come from beets, paprika, or carmine (derived from insects). Artificial red colouring agents include red 40 - also knows as allura red, and red 3 - also known as erythrosine.
Artificial or synthetic food dyes are mainly derived from coal tar, and are thought to pose health risks including hypersensitivity, hyperactivity in children, allergic reactions and other serious health complications. Although many claims are unsubstantiated for now, they are alarming. Currently, the use of colours requires clear labeling on packaging for consumers. For a list of food additives that are permitted in Canada, refer to the Food Additive Dictionary within Health Canada’s website.
Here are sites to visit for additional information on labeling, definitions, and policies:
• Canadian Food Inspection Agency
• Food Safety Network
• Department of Justice Canada
• Health Canada
What natural ingredients can I use in place of food colouring?
For those who prefer natural ingredients, colourful pastries can be had without food colouring. Vivid colours are everywhere in nature, it just takes a little know-how to apply them.
Green: Avocadoes, with a neutral flavour and creamy texture, are great for making green frosting for cakes and other desserts. Just remember to add some lemon juice to keep the avocados from turning brown.
Yellow: For yellow icing or frosting, stale ground turmeric or saffron can be used.
Red: Beet juice, pomegranate juice, and raspberry puree are all excellent in colouring foods red.
Purple: To colour foods purple, blackberry puree works well.
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