Natural Food Dyes for Holiday Cookies

This year I wanted to make fun and cute holiday cookies with my daughters without resorting to the dreaded artificial food dye. I admit that in January I went through the trouble of making my daughter’s 6th birthday cake from scratch with freshly ground whole wheat and local eggs from the farmers’ market, but then I topped it off with artificially colored icing. Even though we made a lot of drastic changes during our 100-day pledge I guess some things are still evolving around here. So this holiday season was my chance to figure out how to make icing that’s colored naturally without breaking the bank.

I did a little research and found that “natural food dyes” do exist, but they are rather expensive at $17 a pack (which includes red, yellow & blue), and the finished product can be really pale. I also found out that if you don’t have a Whole Foods in town these natural dyes (by India Tree) are only sold in a 2-pack at Amazon.com, costing a whopping $35. I asked a few friends if they’d want to split an order, but everyone around here might just think I am teetering on the edge of crazy because they all turned me down. Regardless, I am not spending $35 on food dyes that used to cost me only a buck or two.

So I decided to take matters into my own hands. I went to Trader Joe’s and bought some supplies to experiment with…including pomegranate juice, powder to make pomegranate juice, and candy. Yes – I went out and bought candy, which is something I haven’t done in almost 2 years now, but again my only goal was to make colored icing that wasn’t artificial. And the “natural” Trader Joe’s holiday candy that cost all of $2 ended up being the winning choice. I originally thought the pomegranate juice might work, but it changed the consistency of the icing too much.  We didn’t have that issue with the pomegranate juice powder, but the flavor was honestly just kind of gross. Grinding up pieces of hard candy in my little food chopper though was actually fun, and the flavor worked well with the cookies.

To top off our light red and yellow icing we used a variety of things…

  • Naturally-colored sprinkles that were not sold separately, but as part of a holiday cookie mix at Trader Joe’s
  • Shaved dark chocolate (we used a carrot peeler)
  • All natural fruit leathers chopped into little pieces
  • Raisins
  • Chopped nuts

My girls and I had a blast experimenting, and we didn’t at all feel like we were “cheated” out of any holiday fun! I hope to be able to share a more detailed cookie recipe before the next holiday season, but his was the first time I’d used whole-wheat flour and it still needs some tweaking. In the meantime though I’m so glad we didn’t have to resort to artificial food dyes or spend $35 on a natural alternative. Happy holidays from our family to yours!

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45 thoughts on “Natural Food Dyes for Holiday Cookies”

  1. Really cool post. I read your posts pretty regularly and you always do a good job
    explaining the whatever topic you’re writing about.

    Btw, I shared this on Facebook and my followers loved it.
    Keep up the great work!

  2. Haven’t been to Trader Joe’s yet to see what they might have, but I’m guessing they don’t have any Christmas decorating kits out…and would like to dye icing for Easter cookies. Thoughts?

  3. So, I’m new to this whole natural food dyes thing, and I want to frost some sugar cookies with my kids this weekend for Easter, but my question is… what kind of frosting are you all using to mix in these natural dyes, or fruits to achieve color? Is there a natural store bought brand I can get at Whole Foods? Or a VERY simple recipe I can make using powdered sugar or something? Thanks!

  4. Someone may have already suggested this but I have used strawberries to make pink icing; just blend in the blender and use the juice or make with the pulp as well. I put the extra icing in the refrigerator to use later. I would think that cherries would work for another option. Blueberries would make blue icing. Add blueberries and strawberries together to make purple icing. So just use fruits & vegetables to get the color you are looking for:) Have fun! In our home baked goods don’t last long so I’m not sure if I would leave out on the counter for long, best if refrigerated.

  5. I bought a natural green food dye from Whole foods made from cabbage and turmeric. The smell was awful and changed the flavor of the frosting I made. How do you avoid changing the taste of the food you are coloring when using natural dyes?

  6. Thanks for the ideas! My son recently developed a food dye allergy, and I want to make colored holiday icing for cookies too! I did not realize Whole Foods had natural food dyes – I grocery shop there regularly and did not even think to look. Guess I’ll be heading there again quite soon.

  7. Just FYI the Natural Candy Store website has a multitude of natural dyes and sprinkles at semi-reasonable prices ( $5). Our cookies looked and tasted great this weekend too!

  8. Wondering if you came up with a sugar cookie recipe that is more wholesome than traditional recipes. This will be our first year making them as a family and I figure why not start them out with a more “real food” recipe.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Myra – I would suggest still reading the ingredient label. I wouldn’t rely on the “natural” labeling to be certain what is in the candy. Jill

  9. Great ideas! I was wondering if you could suggest a way to use frosting or yogurt to cover pretzels for my sons birthday party?? I feel like the icing may melt and the recipes I am finding for yogurt covered pretzels are pretty disgusting with all the sugar!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Kristina. Sorry, that’s not something I’ve ever tried doing or have a recipe for. Best of luck. Jill

  10. Hi :) I have just this week found your site and love it. Thanks for sharing all the info.
    For future reference I have used black current juice as a natural pink icing for my two daughters. It makes the icing taste spectacular as well. Everyone at the part wanted to know our secret :)

  11. I love TJ’s! We avoid food dyes for the obvious reasons, but also because my son seems to have a reaction to them. They had tons of “safe” candies and treats this year. I purchased the gingerbread man decorating kit. It came with sprinkles and candy coated chocolates that were all naturally colored. It was so much eaiser than trying to come up with something creative myself. I will definitely try the crushed hard candies next time we do something like this!

    1. Peggy, do you have a source for your statement that India Tree dyes now contain propylene glycol? I have no loyalty to the brand and would switch if future batches indeed contain such additives. But my batch does not, and the India Tree website doesn’t include that in its ingredients list, either. So I’d love to know your source, particularly because, when I wrote about India Tree on Spoonfed, you provided some info about the company’s products that turned out to be incorrect. But if you have a definitive source on the new ingredients, please do share! And I’ll also check out your products again, too. Many thanks.

    1. 100 Days of Real Food

      I just mixed organic powdered sugar with cream (and I also used milk when I ran out of cream) until it was the right consistency. Pretty simple!

  12. Thank you for doing this! I tried to make my Christmas cookies more wholesome this year with mixed results. The white whole wheat flour works better than whole wheat flour though there’s still a bit of a wheat taste. I didn’t touch the icing issue though I did use confectioners sugar. I’d be happy to bag the Wilton colors if the natural colors work.

  13. Great job! I bought the India Tree dyes and sanding sugars and was beyond disappointed. Not only is the resulting color blah, the dyes don’t last very long, only a month or two…can’t remember.

    1. Melinda, not sure what happened to your India Tree colors (as you can see in my post above, I had great luck getting vibrant colors). But I did want to address the expiration date. My India Tree dyes had a soonish expiration date, too, which concerned me, but then I did some research and discovered that — if refrigerated — they’ll last at least a year longer. So that’s what I’ve done, and they’re still going strong more than a year after I bought them. I’d imagine that’s the case with other commercially available natural dyes, too.

  14. I made my daughter pink castle birthday cake….I used pickled beat juice to get a GREAT pink…..and no you could not taste beats only the butter and sugar she loved it and everyone wanted to know how I got pink w/o dye LOVED it…..good for you figuring out dye!!!

  15. Lisa, your cookies look great. And I love the topping ideas. As I mentioned on Facebook, I did shell out for the India Tree dyes (and I split that Amazon two-pack with my sister!). But the way I see it, that $17 has lasted me through two years of holiday and birthday decorating (and counting), so it’s really pretty negligible.

    It is fun making your own dyes, though, and we’ve had good luck with fruit purees. Spoonfed readers also had a ton of ideas for homemade dyes in the comments on this post: http://spoonfedblog.net/2011/01/22/the-color-of-trouble/ (That post also has pictures showing a cake made with the India Tree dyes. The colors aren’t Disney bright, but they’re still pretty vibrant.)

    Happy holidays!

    1. 100 Days of Real Food

      Yes b/c I chopped up the candy in a miniature food processor so about half of it was reduced to a powder, which changed the color of the icing.

  16. I’m sure your kids enjoyed the challenge. They don’t care about bright colors and store-like “perfection”. They like spending time with you and figuring out how to solve a “problem”. That’s the holiday spirit. Well done!

    1. 100 Days of Real Food

      The blue sprinkles were part of the Trader Joe’s pack…the box says “vegetable juice,” but doesn’t share which veggie they used…

    2. Natural blue color can be achieved using red cabbage. We dye our Easter Eggs each year with natural dyes that we make ourselves. The red cabbage makes a lovely blue. We also use things such as beets, red onion peels, tumeric, etc.

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