Food Colouring

Wednesday, 18 June 2008 | Tags: ,

In ancient times, food colouring was created from natural sources like pomegranate and saffron. These days, food colouring is typically used to make food appear attractive—and even more nutritious—to consumers. It also plays a part in branding of food products candy, soft drinks, breakfast cereals, etc.), since without it, most items would look the same. We set out to find a food colouring that could give us deep red icing rosettes for our wedding cake project.

The Basics

  • While naturally-derived food colouring is still available these days, most modern food colouring is artificial, made from coal tar or petroleum, or by chemical synthesis.

  • There are many colours available, depending upon the ingredient source:

    • Artificial food colours include Brilliant Blue (almost a peacock blue shade), Indigotine (dark blue), Fast Green (bluish green), Allura Red (red), Erythosine (pink), Tartrazine (yellow), and Sunset Yellow (orange).

    • The most common artificial colours you find in packages at most grocery stores are the Brilliant Blue, Allura Red, and Tartrazine (yellow), and Fast Green.

    • Natuaral food colours include caramel (derived from caramelized sugar or corn syrup), Annatto, Algae (green), Cochineal, also called carmine (derived from a red beetle), Beet juice and beet powder (red/purple), Tumeric (orange/yellow), Saffron (orange/yellow), Paprika (orange/red), Elderberry Juice (purple/blue), and Spinach (green).

  • You can find food colouring in a few different forms:

    • Liquid food colouring is the most common kind you’ll find at the grocery store in little plastic bottles. It contains a lot of water so the colours tend to be weak and diluted. The range of colours is usually 3-4 in a package, red, yellow, blue, and green. These colours can be blended to create other shades. Liquids are good for casual bakers wanting to put a dash of colour into their baking.

    • Concentrated liquid can be found at a baking supply shop. It is stronger than a regular liquid, but not as strong as a gel in colour strength.

    • Gel is more concentrated than liquid but still contains a lot of water. It can be found at a baking supply store and is also available online, typically packaged in squeeze bottles. The range of colours available are much wider than liquid. Gels are good for more intense colour than liquid, but are still easy to use.

    • Paste is highly concentrated and contains very little water. It comes in jars and can be found at baking supply shops and also online. The range of colours available are usually very good. Paste is good for serious bakers who don’t mind the precision required to use pastes.

    • Powder is the most concentrated food colouring and contains no water. It comes in jars and can also be found at baking supply shops and online, with a wide range of colours available. It will also likely be the most expensive of all the options. Powders are good for serious bakers, and those who want to colour white chocolate (lake-based (oil-soluble) powder required).

  • When you’re shopping for food colouring, consider the following characteristics.

  • For an intense colour, make sure water is as far down as possible on the ingredients list.

  • For a specific or difficult shade (e.g. black), try to find the exact colour rather than relying on mixing, which can turn out pretty muddy.

  • Dye-based products (water soluble) tend to be more versatile than lake-based (oil-soluble, good for hard candy and gum). Dye-based require only a bit of water to dissolve in, while lake-based require fat or oil.

Other Considerations

  • Food colouring gets darker and more intense within a few hours of use, so you may need less than you think. The best way to see what colour you’ll be getting is to pre-make the icing or marzipan a day before and see how the colour evolves. Store the pre-coloured icing or marzipan in a cool, dark place, because heat and light can fade colour.

  • Liquid and gel food colourings can be added directly from the bottle, a drop or two at a time. For paste, use a toothpick to dip into the jar then stir the toothpick into the icing. Use a new toothpick each time you add more colour so you don’t contaminate the jar. For powder, use a teaspoon to measure out a very small amount at a time.

  • When kneading food colour into marzipan, wear food-grade gloves or apply a thin layer of shortening to your hands to avoid dying your skin.

  • Store food colouring in a cool, dry, dark place to keep the colour from deteriorating.

Be Aware

  • When using Over the years, there has been numerous health scares related to artificial food colouring, included cancer-related links. Several formulas have been banned over the years as a result. Studies are ongoing as to whether food colouring can be linked to ADHD in children.

  • Natural food colouring has had fewer health scares, though there is controversy over the red ingredient carmine/cochineal, derived from beetles, which is used extensively in yogurt, candy and cosmetics. It’s not suitable for vegetarians, vegans, orthodox Jews or Muslims. Some people are also highly allergic to the beetle.


We were on the hunt for a deep red rose colour for our wedding cake project and tested these food colouring products on our rosette icing:

  • Clubhouse (liquid) Red Food Colour: $1.99/28 ml
  • Ateco Spectrum Super Red Gel Food Color: $2.25/21 g (0.75 oz)
  • Wilton Icing Colors Red (No Test) Concentrated Paste: $3.38/28.35 g (1 oz)
  • LorAnn Gourmet Red Powder Food Colour: $2.49/0.5 oz

Colour Test

  • The Clubhouse liquid gave our icing a lovely pink hue, but it wasn’t anywhere near the deep red we were looking for, even though in the bottle it looked quite dark. We even added more drops and it just got darker and darker pink, almost a fuchsia bubble gum colour.

  • The Ateco Spectrum gel was darker than the liquid, but still not deep red. It was more of a salmon-coral colour.

  • With the Wilton paste we got close, but it was more tomato red (with orange tones).

  • The LorAnn Gourmet powder had the richest and most natural tones, but still wasn’t the perfect deep red we were looking for. We had to add a lot of it in order to get the deep colour we wanted.


For the deep rich tones we were looking for, we went with the powder food colouring from LorAnn Gourmet

top of page | | back to posts |
  • Subscribe to the A&K Newsletter