We've always felt that decorating cakes and cookies was more fun than baking them (both activities trumped by the actual eating, of course). Kids love to decorate their food - it's part cooking and part arts and crafts. But did you ever wonder what's in those colored sugars and dyes? We didn't until we came across some natural vegetable-based products for comparison.
The FDA regulates the use of color additives in food and has approved seven artificially-derived colors as safe for general food use. These additives are derived primarily from petroleum and coal sources. The FDA also approves many plant, animal and mineral-derived coloring (like caramel, beet and turmeric).
The FDA insists its approved color additives are safe, so what's the problem? For one thing, some people are allergic to certain coloring agents. Yellow No. 5 causes hives in a small percentage of the population and has even been linked to asthma attacks. Additionally, some of the dyes approved for use in the U.S. are banned in many European countries (including Yellow No. 5 and Red No. 40) making us wonder what they know that we don't. Although inconclusive, some studies have made a link between artificial coloring agents and ADD and ADHD. And sometimes the FDA is wrong. Since it started approving artificial colors in 1906, it has "delisted" seven colors for use. In 1990 manufacturers voluntarily stopped using Red No. 3 after animal testing found a link with thyroid tumors - yet it remains on the FDA's approved list.
The truth is, if you buy any food in a store, it's impossible to avoid coloring additives. They're in pretty much everything. But there are certain natural coloring alternatives you can buy or make to diminish, if very slightly, your family's artificial intake. One great source for cookie and cake decorating supplies is India Tree which we read about on the blog A Child Grows in Brooklyn.
India Tree has a line called Nature's Colors which uses colors derived from FDA approved edible plants. They offer six colors of sugar, 5 colored nonpareils (both seen at top) and decorations they call snowflakes and string of pearls. They also sell concentrated liquid vegetable colorants which you can use to color frostings, dye eggs, etc. You can find a list of online retailers or stores close to you which sell India Tree products here.
If you want to try making your own vegetable dyes for making frosting, we found some good ideas and how-tos at the Urban Vegan's site.