Food Colourings, It's a Colourful World

They come in liquids, pastes, gels and practically every colour of the rainbow. You gladly use them to cheer up your desserts. But what are food colourings made of? And which one is best for the job at hand? Here’s a closer look at food colourings.


Water-based liquid food colourings are sold in just about every grocery store. They come in a limited range of basic colours (yellow, red, green,blue) and livelier neon shades (pink, lime green, purple, light blue). For other hues, you have to blend the basic colours. For example, you can make orange by mixing red and yellow, or purple by combining blue and red. These products are ideal for dyeing Easter eggs, colouring cookie dough or cake batter, or tinting regular icing-sugar based frostings. However, the resulting colour will be pale unless you use large amounts of colouring, which can affect the consistency. That’s why liquid colourings are not recommended for fondants, hard candies, marzipan, white chocolate or buttercreams, especially when you want intense colours. In that case, your best bet is to use a much more concentrated type of colouring: gel.

Petal, pearl and shimmer dusts

These specialized powders are not meant to be mixed with food, but dusted on the surface. They’re available in vivid, pastel, golden or silvery hues. Pearl and shimmer powders give an attractive glow to cake decorations such as leaves, fondant flowers and ribbons, decorative sugar and white chocolate, while flat-finish powders give depth and definition. Simply sprinkle or brush the powder where you want it. You can also mix it with gin, vodka or clear vanilla extract and “paint” it on.


Most gel-type food colourings contain water, sugar, glycerine and vegetable gums. Kitchen specialty stores, art supply shops and cake decorating stores sell small jars (20 to 28 g/3/4 to 1 oz) that cost about $2.50 apiece. They’re available in just about any colour you might need (some retailers carry 30 or more), including brown and black, so you don’t have to mix your own.

Gel food colourings are very concentrated. They’re perfect for tinting almost anything edible: all kinds of icings, cookie dough, cake batter, fondants, marzipan, buttercream, and the list goes on. Pastry chefs and cake-decorating specialists prefer gels for two reasons: they mix easily and, since relatively small amounts get the job done, they don’t affect the consistency of food. The result can be pastels or vivid hues; simply adjusting the quantity makes any shade possible. Some types of colouring paste can even add colour to white chocolate. But be careful: you need to use an oil-based product instead of a water-based one. Even a single drop of water in melted chocolate can make it seize and turn grainy.


They were bound to show up sooner or later: felt-tip markers filled with edible ink! These products make writing and decorating quite literally child’s play. With hues ranging from vivid to neon and pastel, markers are a fun and easy way to personalize cakes, cupcakes and glazed cookies such as gingerbread men. You can even write on sliced bread, cheese, fruits and vegetables!

Mists and sprays

Spraying food colouring from a can is loads of fun: just spritz a fine mist over an iced cake or cupcake and you’ll give it a whole new look. These colourings can also be sprayed on whipped cream and ice cream. The nozzle isn’t as precise as an airbrush, but you’ll still create an appealing look. Many cake decorating supply stores sell up to eight colours.

Where to buy colourings

You’ll find these products in art supply stores, cake and candy specialty stores and kitchen accessory shops. Several can also be ordered online from cake-decoration specialists such as Wilton.

Sensitivity to synthetic colour additives

Health Canada tests and approves all synthetic food colourings, but a small minority of people (fewer than 0.2%) are sensitive. For example, tartrazine (Yellow No. 5) is linked to hives and, less commonly, asthma.

Over 30 years ago, Dr. Benjamin Feingold hypothesized that food colourings and other food additives contribute to childhood attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. A recent British study found a link between food colouring and hyperactivity when large amounts of colouring were used in conjunction with a common preservative, sodium benzoate. Normally, this combination won't occur in homemade preparations, but check the ingredient listing on items such as fruits drinks or candies to be certain.

Tips and tricks

  • A toothpick is the perfect tool for taking gel colouring from a jar. Dip the gel-laden toothpick in the food you want to colour; to avoid getting food in the jar, use a fresh toothpick for every addition of colouring.
  • Coloured buttercream icing will gradually darken, especially after several hours in the refrigerator. If you want a very dark colour (a deep red for Christmas, for example), make your icing a day ahead. The colour will be richer the next day—and you won’t use up a whole bottle of colouring.
  • Add colouring gradually—one drop at a time. You can always add more to deepen the colour, but it’s hard to lighten a preparation that’s too dark.
  • Set aside part of your icing before colouring it. If you accidentally make the coloured portion too dark, remove part of the coloured preparation and mix in the reserved untinted portion.
  • If gel colouring dries out in its jar, revive it by stirring in a small amount of glycerine, sold in pharmacies.
  • Some colourings won’t produce the desired colour when added to an acidic preparation, such as icing that contains lemon juice or cream of tartar. Brown can turn greenish, while purple may turn blue. Omit the acidic ingredient if you can.
  • Colourings will tint more than just food: hands and countertops can also wind up a new shade. Wear rubber gloves to knead colouring into fondants. A mild bleach solution will remove stains on most counters.
  • When used in large quantities, red colourings can impart a bitter taste. Look for Wilton’s “no-taste” red colouring, which contains no FD&C Red
  • No. 3, the cause of the bitterness.
  • To make deep black icing, add black food colouring to chocolate icing.

Artificial colourings

Adding colour to improve food’s visual appeal isn’t exactly new. Salt, herbs and spices have always been used to enhance flavours, while spinach, saffron, marigold petals, turmeric and beets, to name a few, all have a long history as ingredients used to give foods a visual boost. Today, while natural food colourings are still used, they’ve mostly been replaced by artificial, petroleum-based colourings, which have the benefit of being more stable and less costly. The food colouring products described here all contain artificial colouring agents.

How many synthetic colour additives are permitted in food manufacturing in Canada and the United States? Only seven, but those seven can be mixed to make just about every colour in the visible spectrum! Regulations stipulate they must be listed as ingredients when added to a food product. Sometimes they’re listed under the generic name of “colouring,” and sometimes by their common name (tartrazine, allura red) or by a code (FD&C Yellow No. 5, FD&C Red No. 40, E102, E 129). “FD&C” is the code used in the U.S. to indicate that the colouring has been certified for use in food, drugs and cosmetics. The letter “E” followed by a number is the identifier used by the European Union. For example, the label on Wilton brand forest green colouring shows that it contains FD&C Yellow No. 5, Blue No. 2 and Red No. 40.

Christina Blais

For Christina Blais, explaining food chemistry to the masses is as simple as making a good omelet. Holding a Bachelor and Master degree in Nutrition, she has been a part-time lecturer for over 30 years in the Department of Nutrition at the Université de Montréal, where she teaches food science courses. She has been sharing the fruits of her experience with Ricardo since 2001, during his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé. And diehards can also read her Food Chemistry on our website. You can follow her on Facebook at @Encuisineavecchristinablais.