Yellow soups that look like liquid gold, forest green cakes and pizzas in which the colour red invades the dough. The colour spectrum tinges the foods on our table and the beverages served at bars, while pastry dresses up in pastel colours; the colour craze – with violet soaring in popularity – has broken out in the ambit of food. In actual fact, this is no novelty: even the Romans used to colour their food with carrots, mulberries or pomegranate; on the Old Continent in the Middle Ages the question had already been subjected to legislative provisions (a French decree of 1396 prohibited the colouring of butter); then came the chemical revolution, which blurred the distinction between natural and non, between coloured foods and food colourings.
The use of natural food colourings is widespread in the food industry to prevent the appeal of preserved foods from fading and to manipulate consumers’ sensorial perceptions. Since the outset, synthetic colourings have always contained components that are more or less harmful – consider for instance the glaring case of vermillion pigment containing mercury or, to quote a more recent example, the “Southampton 6”, which refers to the six substances accused and taken before the European authorities by the eponymous University.
Less flashy and possibly more perishable (but not excessively so), the charm of food colourings ‘made by nature’ has no equal. Instead of being harmful to health, these dyes may even contain the same beneficial effects as the vegetable they come from. Such as turmeric, extracted from the Indian plant of the same name, the quintessential natural yellow that dyes everything in sight, including your fingers. How is it used? To colour mustard, for instance!
Chlorophyll, the Natural green food colouring
Here is a brief review of the other natural colourings used today. Chlorophyll and Chlorophyllin, the green food colourings extracted for instance from ordinary spinach, but also from the chlorella alga, a microalga living in freshwater environments, which is rich in vitamin A, reinforces the immune system, detoxes and purifies, and removes heavy metal build–up.
Natural red food colourings
Bixa orellana (Achiote) is a shrub originating from South America. An orange-red dye very popular in Mexico is extracted, not from the baby pink petals of its flowers, but from its lipstick red seeds contained in silky pods, whose flavour is somewhat earthy and bitter.
Capsanthin, or capsorubin, with its bright orange colour is nothing but a higher concentration of paprika. And then we have blood red, love red or tomato red – tomato is the primary food source of lycopene which, as well as being one of the most powerful antioxidants provided by nature, is also a carotenoid endowed with extraordinary colouring properties.
This brings us to betanin, more commonly known as beetroot red, a vegetable that has extraordinary health benefits. Its powder can produce colours ranging from baby to violently shocking pink, according to the ingredient mix and personal preference. The anthocyan antioxidants – those responsible for the stains left by berry fruits – provide colourings in the violet-blue range.
Turning food into black, silver and gold
And to complete the colour spectrum with darker tones, we also have carbon black, deriving from the carbonisation of plant substances (here are some examples of cooking with charcoal).
Colour sources, however, are not limited to plants: there is a popular food colouring that is exclusively animal-based. A whole animal in fact. Tiny little creatures, to be precise: cochineal, derived from the ladybirds that infest our garden plants, colour many of the beverages we drink regularly deep carmine red.
Not forgetting: caramel, saffron, and the inorganic mineral colours including gold and silver… All natural colours for tingeing flours, decorating cappuccinos and creating gastronomic artworks of naturally striking colours.