Baking and Decorating with Natural Food Coloring

Cupcakes decorated with bright blue frosting. Ombre donuts topped with pink-orange glaze. Bright yellow emoji cookies. Color can play a huge role in sweet baked goods. 

But while consumers increasingly expect these vibrant hues in bakery cases, they’re also seeking goods made with cleaner ingredients. According to a survey by Nielsen, 61 percent of consumers say they stay away from foods made with artificial colors. 

As a result, more people are becoming aware of—and asking for—natural food coloring in their desserts.

“It’s not a niche market; it’s a very, very mainstream phenomenon,” Adam Graber, Dawn Foods senior director of customer & consumer experience, says of natural colors. “People want to understand what they’re putting into their bodies. Nobody knows what FD&C Red is, but they can understand when something is colored with carrot juice or beets.”

How can bakeries achieve the taste and appearance bakery customers crave using natural food colorants? With the right ingredients and some ingenuity, the answer may be easier than you think.

Baking with Natural Colors: From Plants to Color Palettes

Green is the color of salad, smoothies and tea. But at Living Food Bakery and Café in Zephyrhills, Florida, U.S., it’s also the color of bread, cookies and cake. That’s because husband-and-wife owners Vicky Lin and Bernard Wong specialize in creations infused with moringa, an edible plant whose leaves are rich in vitamins, minerals and amino acids. The bakery owners use fresh moringa leaves in breads, cakes and pastries, and grind them into a powder for cookies. The ingredient gives foods a sweet, earthy taste and a distinctive, all-natural green color.

“It’s different, but people love the taste,” Lin says.


Natural colors for bakery desserts

Cake colored naturally with moringa from Living Food Bakery and Café in Zephyrhills, Florida, U.S.

Moringa isn’t the only natural colorant at bakers’ disposal. Lin also makes a hibiscus-ginger pudding that gets its vibrant magenta color from hibiscus flowers. And Michael Romano, executive chef and pastry chef at QWNS Cafe in Long Island City, New York, U.S., uses matcha green tea to make a green vegan matcha monkey bread, and frozen berries to make a colorful raspberry mousse and a beautiful blueberry gelee (a jellied dessert). 

Fabio Sorano, owner-manager of Letizia’s Natural Bakery in Chicago, includes raspberry preserves in pink cakes, icings and buttercreams. And Annabel Lui, co-founder of Cutter & Squidge in London, creates colorful buttercream fondants, royal icings, macaroons, biscuits, cookies and sponges with fruit pastes made from berries, as well as powders made from ingredients like spirulina, turmeric, blue pea tea, charcoal and cocoa powder.

One of Lui’s favorite colorants is beetroot. “This gives an amazing color from light to deep pinks on icings, buttercreams and ganache to color a natural red velvet sponge,” she says. “A tip for using beetroot is to use the extracted juice or powder and rehydrate it. Rehydrating the beetroot or using the juice will make the color disperse evenly.”

Understand the Parameters of Natural Baking Colors

When working with natural colors, bakers may experience technical challenges related to color dispersal and heat. “Natural food coloring doesn’t react well to heat, so if you are using it to color a white chocolate ganache, for example, [you’ll need to] add the coloring afterward,” Lui says.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is flavor. “To get a really vibrant red, you might have to use lots and lots of beet or red cabbage extract. And, if you put lots of beets in something? Surprise: It’s going to taste like beets, which may not be good in the indulgent sweets category. If you want a cupcake, and it tastes like red cabbage, that’s going to create a lot of cognitive dissonance.”

"If you want to go natural, embrace the limits. You’re just not going to get certain colors, and that’s OK."
—Fabio Sorano, owner-manager, Letizia’s Natural Bakery in Chicago 

For that reason, bakers working with plant-derived colors from scratch may need to learn a new mantra: Muted can be magnificent. “If you want to go natural, embrace the limits,” Sorano advises. “You’re just not going to get certain colors, and that’s OK.”

In fact, bakers can play up the unique, natural appearance of treats colored with non-artificial ingredients by topping them with fresh components like fruit or mint leaves. This can position the desserts as premium offerings.

Working with natural coloring in desserts may be tricky, but with the right approach to ingredients and technique, bakers can create beautiful, delicious cakes that appeal to label-conscious consumers.