April 4, 2009–Today’s Way: Ever stop to wonder where food coloring comes from or what it’s made of? Part of teaching our children how to become more eco-conscious is to get them into the habit of seeing the full life of every object that passes through ours. So many of the products that find their way into our cupboards get there without us even knowing how or why. Food coloring, for instance, seems like a benign additive and evokes memories of dyeing Easter eggs and making colorful frostings and treats at other holidays and occasions…but you probably never knew that those supposedly harmless, ingestible colorants are generally derived from coal tar. What is coal tar? It’s a byproduct of processed coal, after it’s treated for burning in coal plants. Coal tar itself can be used as a fuel oil, but its many other uses include various heavy industries such as in the making of asphault and creosote, as well as an additive for killing headlice and treating skin conditions such as psoriasis.  Oh, did I forget to mention that it’s also a known carcinogen?  Despite its approval for use in food, FD&C Yellow No. 5 contains tartrazine which should not be ingested by folks with sensitivities to aspirin or those with asthma, and FD&C Red No. 3 contains the chemical erythrosine, a suspected carcinogen (both are coal tar derivatives).  So much so, in fact, that some European countries have banned use of these artificial colorants in foods as well as cosmetics because of their potential for harm.  In the light of day, these supposed food-friendly dyes begin to take on a different hue.

The good news is that there are healthy, natural, economical ways to color foods and, yes, especially those Easter eggs!  You can achieve surprisingly gorgeous colors by using vegetables that you probably already have in your kitchen. Red cabbage, onion skins, coffee, turmeric, spinach and beets will imbue your Easter basket with all the colors of the rainbow with just a little effort, and without leaching potentially harmful substances into the eggs that are meant to then be eaten.  Plus, it just happens to be a fun way to spend some quality time with the kids, while teaching them about where stuff comes from and practicing being mindful of where it all ends up.   I can’t think of a better experiment to open up young, inquisitive minds to more wonder and possibility in our world.

Here are two great websites that will guide you through the dyeing process step by step: