During the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day it’s common to observe the holiday by eating green eggs and ham and drinking green beer. But what actually gives your food that color, and is it safe? Institute of Food Technologists member Kantha Shelke, PhD, CFS, dispels the mystery behind green St. Patrick’s Day foods and shares facts about natural food dyes.

Q: Where do natural dyes come from?
A: Natural dyes are derived from all the active ingredients responsible for colors found in nature – like the plants, fruits and vegetables we’ve actually been eating for a long time. They come from plants, insects, and minerals. These are compounds that we’ve been eating for more than 5,000 years. The ancient Chinese, Indians, and Egyptians all used these methods.

Q: What are some examples of plants, insects and minerals that are used for certain colors?
A: Saffron gives a beautiful yellow to orange color to rice, like in Paella. Turmeric, is a bright yellow color; beet is a beautiful red color; and spinach, that’s where we get our green from!

Q: What is the difference between a natural dye and an organic dye?
A: The only difference between a regular natural dye and an organic dye is that the organic dye is certified as organic whereas a natural dye may be the same structurally as the organic dye, but just has not been certified organic by the USDA.

Q: So what’s making my beer green?
A: Spinach! It’s used to color your food and it’s safe, delicious and healthy! The chlorophyll in leafy greens are a terrific way to color your foods while making your favorite foods even more healthful.

Source: Kantha Shelke, Phd, CFS, IFT member
U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives and Colors

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