Part of the fun of St. Patrick’s Day is celebrating all things green. Kids make sure to wear something green to avoid getting pinched, and we all especially love feasting on green cuisine. From veggies and dip to drinks to cookies frosted in electric green, it seems like everything edible has been touched by the magic of emerald coloring. But how much artificial coloring is too much?
Artificial Food Dyes May Contribute to ADHD and Cause Allergic Reactions
According to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), in 2010 Americans consumed over 6,800 tons of artificial coloring. Though the FDA asserts that no scientific research has categorically proven that artificial food colors and dyes cause harm, more than a few studies have suggested that dyes may contribute to ADHD in children and in high doses can be carcinogenic.
Other studies have associated food dyes with reactions in children including allergies, hyperactivity, learning impairment, irritability and aggressiveness. A major 2007 study published in Lancet found that children who consumed artificial dyes displayed hyperactive behavior within an hour after consumption. These undisputed results led to comprehensive labeling laws in the UK and the European Union — which have yet to be ruled on in the U.S.
So it’s best for growing children to avoid artificial food coloring and dyes altogether. But that doesn’t mean your family can’t get into the green spirit on St. Patrick’s Day — all you have to do is use readily available natural foods and plant extracts.
“Green” Alternative Green
A quick online search of natural green food coloring brings dozens of great options. You can easily choose a hue, vividness and flavor, if any is desired. Keep in mind, tough, that none of these natural dyes will bring on the brilliant colors of commercial artificial coloring — think more pastel or army green. Vegetable-based concentrates may also lend a touch of flavor, which can be a bonus for savory foods … but not so much for sweets.
Choosing the right alternative green food coloring for St. Patrick’s Day dishes requires some experimentation and taste testing, and the staff here at ZisBoomBah.com wanted to take out the guesswork so you can kick back and have some fun making green foods with your family for the Irish holiday. I volunteered my family and neighbors to lend their taste buds to my culinary experiments in the emerald spectrum.
First, I chose three foods that would be readily found at a St. Patrick’s Day kid-friendly party: ranch dip, mashed potatoes (which can also be made into colcannon with the addition delicious green cabbage) and mini cupcakes with cream cheese frosting. Each of these foods I would color with 1 of 3 chosen natural dyeing agents and serve without identification as a blind taste test.
And the Nominees Are …
The three natural green coloring agents I chose were spinach, spirulina and avocado. The spinach took the most prep time: I used one 12-ounce package of baby spinach, lightly chopped and simmered in ½ cup water with a teaspoon of salt for 1 hour. Once cooled, I pureed it in a blender for a minute until smooth and sent it through a sieve. This last step wasn’t really needed, as the puree was already dark, smooth and velvety.
The spirulina, a green algae harvested for its nutritional boost, I found quite easily in the bulk spice section of Whole Foods. Two teaspoons cost me about $.41. I sprinkled 1 teaspoon in 1 tablespoon of cold water and mixed it well. The dye was a deep, blue-green color with a slightly funky smell.
Last but not least was a good-old avocado. Sweet and creamy, I knew this fruit would lend itself well to the dip and frosting, but I was concerned about the mashed potatoes. I also needed to make sure the kids didn’t see this ingredient, as most of them have an inherent avocado prejudice.
Each food was divided into 3 equal serving bowls and mixed with the 3 different dyes. The spinach lent a nice army green to the dip, potatoes and frosting, while the spirulina gave a much bluer-green appearance. The avocado lent a nice pale pastel green across all the foods and even stayed stable in color in the refrigerator for a few days after the taste test.
I tested the foods as you might progress through a meal: first the ranch dip with carrot sticks, then the mashed potatoes and finally the cupcakes. Water was used to cleanse palates after each taste. Our tasters were 2 boys and 2 girls ages 8 to 12, one mom and one grandmom.
For the best color, the spinach puree won across all three food categories for the closest to Kelly green. Though many liked the pretty blue-green color the spirulina lent, the kids especially felt it was wrong for St. Patrick’s Day. “I’d use it for Halloween,” I heard more than once.
For the ranch dip, the favorite flavor was split along generations. The adults preferred the creamy mellowness of the avocado, while the kids enjoyed the nori-like nuttiness of the spinach in the ranch dip. All agreed that the spirulina dip tasted exactly like regular ranch, but that didn’t necessarily make it the most flavorful.
By the time we dug into the mashed potatoes, a couple of the kids had figured out that one of the green coloring agents was from avocado, so the results probably reflect that prejudice. In terms of flavor, the clear winner for the kids was the spinach-colored potatoes. One parent really loved the avocado-mashed but agreed the avocado flavor was strong — which was OK with her.
The most remarkable results were from the cream-cheese frosted mini cupcakes. It was harder to tell which frosting contained which dye, so the results favored the avocado-colored treats. The spinach and spirulina frostings “tasted just like normal frosting” according to most, but the creamy texture of the avocado frosting won everyone over.
And the Winner Is …
For St. Patrick’s Day, I highly recommend using a vegetable concentrate like spinach for the best color and least intrusive flavor. Making homemade food dyes is a great alternative for coloring foods for holidays — or any day for that matter. With Easter coming, create a rainbow of vegetable dyes with your kids for coloring eggs and sweet treats to celebrate. Brainstorm as to what vegetables you think would make the best pink, orange or blue. Be prepared to get colorful — and have tons of fun experimenting!