With Easter approaching I thought it would be fun to dig into some holiday history. But rather than focus on the religious history of Easter or the ancient pagan spring origins of dyeing eggs, I thought I’d delve into the history of food dye itself.
It would be quite the challenge to condense all of the world’s knowledge on this topic into one single blog post. There are too many individual colors to cover and the world is filled with a fascinating array of food traditions and histories. In order to make this work I’ll have to focus on the food colorants from regions and eras I am most familiar with (i.e. medieval Europe). As much as I’d like to avoid being Eurocentric, we have to start somewhere. Consider this a brief overview on the history of food dye and how Western society shifted from natural dye to synthetic.
As an added bonus, I’ve included some dye recipes. Scroll to the end to learn how to color your Easter eggs with natural ingredients!
Food Dyes of the Ancient World
It is said that we eat with our eyes first and then our stomachs. This statement is as true now as it was a thousand years ago!
Ancient Chinese, Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations used natural dyes to color everything from textiles and paint to hair, cosmetics and food. The Romans and Greeks were known for coloring their wine, and the wealthy elite of ancient Japan and India garnished their food with edible gold. The Aztecs used the cochineal to create a red dye (also known as carmine), which is still widely used today.
Natural edible sources of dyes included flowers, vegetables, fruits, spices, minerals, metals and even insects. Chefs and artists had to rely on whatever they could find in nature to create the colors they were after. Egyptians used the kermes insect to make red, Phoenicians and Romans used mollusks to make purple, and squid ink has long been used as black dye in Asia and the Mediterranean. In many cases, ingredients were added to a dish with not only flavor in mind, but also color.
The specific natural colorants that were used varied by culture, region and climate, but travel and trade broadened the availability of many ingredients and prepared dyes. As the world opened up, cuisines influenced one another, spices and other goods were imported and ideas were shared. Medieval crusaders in the 11th and 12th centuries were fascinated by Arab “Golden food,” which was dyed gold, garnished with gold leaf served on gold plates, and they are thought to have brought the idea back home with them.
Medieval Food Coloring
Europeans in the Middle Ages loved colorful and theatrical food. Upper class and royal chefs were known for serving exotic meats and extravagantly moulded sugar sculptures, as well as teasing guests with disguised or “mock” foods, sometimes with surprises baked inside. Because food’s appearance played a huge role in courtly cuisine, many dishes were named specifically for their color (such as Golden Leeks and blancmange). Some pottages and custards were prepared “departed,” which meant multiple portions of varying colors were served as a pattern in the same dish. Gold leaf garnishes were also used for banquets, but a cheaper alternative was “endoring” or “gilding” with eggs to achieve that golden hue. Gold was all the rage.
Early on, the colors of choice were yellow and green, but by the later centuries the color range was quite extensive, especially for those who could afford fancy spices. An enormous number of 14th and 15th century recipes call for saffron! Cookery books include many recipes with suggested colorant ingredients, but food historians tell us that it was common for cooks to get creative with dried flowers, fruits or other plant-based food dyes. Below are some common medieval food colorants:
Mulberry, turnsole flowers, blackberry pulp
Sorrel, parsley, herbs
Browns and blacks
Breadcrumbs, animal blood, cinnamon, prunes
A Growing Need for Regulation
Unfortunately, the widespread desire among lower classes to eat like the royals (but on a budget) led to a lot of fraud in the marketplace. Dyes were used to hide food discoloration and to deceive customers. There were occasions when cheap bread was dyed to imitate a more expensive white bread, which was typically only enjoyed by the rich. A peasant might be overjoyed to find affordable “white” bread only to fall ill due to it being laced with chalk, crushed bones and even lime.
Cheap and toxic dyes were problematic for centuries since it was a difficult market to regulate. Some effort was made early on to enforce regulation, such as a 1396 French law banning coloring butter. This kind of thing went on for some time and only became worse as technology and chemistry improved into the early 19th century. Plant-based dyes altered flavor and their resulting colors were not very vibrant, so merchants and manufacturers looking for cheaper and more attractive replacements began to dye foods with known toxic metal and mineral-based dyes used for textiles and paint. Candy marketed toward children was being brightly colored with lead, vermilion mercury and arsenic and there were cases of pickles being coated with copper, among other things. Needless to say, people got sick and there began to be a push for stronger laws to fight against the seemingly constant fraud.
In Europe, after a widespread outcry from the public about contaminated and “adulterated food,” a number of laws began to be passed, banning certain colors and limiting manufacturers to the use of only approved non-toxic dyes or attempting to eliminate food additives completely. The United States was much slower to do anything about the lead, arsenic and copper that were found in so many products. The federal government didn’t ban harmful metal dyes in food until 1906 with the passing of the Wiley Act.
The Rise of Synthetic Dye
Poison or not, the dyes used for food and cosmetics were all from natural sources until 1856 when Sir Henry William Perkins created mauvine while he was trying to make an anti-malaria drug called quinine. Other colors soon followed and synthetic dyes began to take over the industry. Not only were they cheaper to make, synthetic dyes didn’t affect flavor and significantly less of it had to be used to reach the desired shades. These new colors were still not entirely non-toxic, but they were much safer than the metal and mineral-based dyes that had contaminated so much of the Industrial Era food market. With all the issues surrounding food additives and regulations in the 19th century, it was no wonder why many manufacturers eventually made the switch to synthetic dye.
In the United States, the growing artificial dye industry wasn’t heavily regulated, even after 1906. During the first part of the 20th century many colors had to be eliminated after seeing proof of their negative health effects. After the Food and Drug Administration was created in 1927 there was much improvement in general food safety. Eventually only 7 synthetic colors were declared safe, which increased to 16 in the 1950’s, then back down to 7. The list has grown and changed as more options have become available and as research has determined which dyes (synthetic and natural) are considered “safe.”
In Europe, food quality and safety has been regularly monitored since the 19th century. As in the United States, food dye regulations have adapted and changed over time. Currently there is a significant difference between the colors and additives allowed in Europe versus the U.S., since the standards determining what is and isn’t toxic differ from country to country. When it comes to food safety, Europe is far more restrictive overall. Many American foods contain dyes and additives that have been banned completely by the European Union, and some of them are even labelled as known carcinogens. For specifics, read What Foods are Banned in Europe but Not Banned in the U.S.?
Food dyes have a fascinating past and will likely continue to change and improve in the future. Centuries of dyeing food has resulted in consumers who are psychologically conditioned to expect nearly everything to look the way it tastes, or taste the way it looks. We expect something purple to taste like grape, yellow to taste like banana or lemon, red is cherry and so on. Not only that, we determine our food’s freshness and safety by its color, not always aware that it has been dyed for generations to look that way. One could argue that in the modern world, color is flavor.
If you are interested in reading more about food dyes, individual colors and their sources, check out the following links:
- Pigments Through the Ages. This is specifically about paint, but there is some crossover with food dye sources, such as carmine and vermilion.
- The Chemistry of Food Colorings. Information on natural and synthetic colors currently used in food, including a list of U.S. approved dyes.
Natural Egg Dyes
I’ve chosen three common ingredients that have been used as food colorants as far back as the Middle Ages. The resulting colors are beautiful but be aware that unlike the synthetic food coloring, natural dyes take longer to reach peak vibrancy.
There are many additional ideas online for natural dye ingredients, should you decide to try a wider variety of colors.
- When using vegetables and fruit, roughly equal parts food to water
- When using powdered spices, 2-3 Tbsp per 4 c. water
- Eggs can be cooked directly in any dye for an evenly distributed pale color.
- Recipes below can easily be doubled. If you are boiling your eggs directly in the dye be sure to double the recipes below. Adjust the water, if necessary, to ensure that the eggs are completely submerged.
- If soaking for longer than an hour, best refrigerate your eggs as you dye.
- Experiment with white and brown eggs!
Red Cabbage dye (blue)
2 c. water
2 c. chopped cabbage
1 Tbsp. vinegar
Bring to a boil then simmer 20-30 minutes. Strain and let it cool to room temperature. Soak eggs for 30 minutes to overnight, depending on the desired shade of blue.
Beet dye (pink)
2 c. water
2 c. chopped beets
1 Tbsp. vinegar
Bring to a boil then simmer 30 min. Strain and cool to room temperature. Soak eggs. This color will transfer quickly, but will become more vibrant when soaked for at least an hour.
Turmeric dye (yellow)
4 c. water
3 Tbsp. turmeric powder
2 Tbsp. vinegar
Simmer for 15 minutes. Strain, if desired and cool to room temperature. Soaking eggs overnight will give you the deepest color.
*Turmeric will boil over very quickly so the best result is achieved by cooking eggs directly in the turmeric mixture. Be sure to increase the water level to cover the eggs.
My Tried-and-True Hard-Cooked Egg Recipe
Cover eggs with cold water and slowly bring to a boil. Careful not to let it boil for much longer than a minute to avoid cracking the shells. Cover pot and remove from heat. Allow eggs to simmer in hot water for 20 minutes. Keep the lid on and do not peek! Remove from hot water and soak in cold water until they are cool.
- Burrows, J.D., A. (2009), Palette of Our Palates: A Brief History of Food Coloring and Its Regulation. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 8: 394-408. Accessed via Wiley Online Library April, 2019.
- Fleming, Elise. Food Coloring Agents. March 8, 1996. Accessed April, 2019.
- Freedman, Paul. Food: The History of Taste. University of California Press, USA. 2007. Print.
- “The History of Food Colour Additives.” SafeFood Food Safety Promotion Board. SafeFood.eu. Accessed April, 2019.
- Weiss-Adamson, Melitta. Food in the Middle Ages. Greenwood Press, CT. USA. 2004. Print