Does Food Coloring Go Bad? [Gel, Liquid, & More]

You probably have a box in your cupboard with four little bottles of food coloring — red, yellow, green, and blue.

These little squeezy bottles allow you to drip one drop of food coloring at a time into your frosting or cookie dough. You’ve seen the expiration date on the box as well, but does food coloring really expire? 

Generally speaking, artificial food coloring has an incredibly long shelf life. Liquid, gel, paste, and powdered food coloring is good indefinitely. Make sure to store it in an air-tight container away from direct sunlight. However, homemade natural food coloring will typically only last in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks. 

Keep reading to find out more about kinds of food coloring, when to use them, how to store them, and any potential health effects you should be aware of. 

Why Does Food Coloring Have an Expiration Date?

In America, all food products must have a best by date according to the FDA. However, because food coloring is made with synthetic ingredients, water, and stabilizers, it doesn’t spoil anything.

Therefore, you can use liquid, gel, or powdered shelf-stable food coloring as long as it has been stored with the lids tightly sealed.

Food Coloring

Most manufacturers recommend that you keep it at room temperature and in a cabinet out of direct sunlight.

If you have a little box of 4 food coloring bottles, it is most likely McCormick brand food coloring. This product has been used by generations of cooks for brightening up desserts.

According to their FAQ page, McCormick explains that the 4-year from production expiration date suggests that the coloring “quality may be affected over time,” but consuming the food coloring beyond the expiry date “is not harmful.”

Similarly, using Wilton’s gel food coloring and AmeriColor’s gel, paste, liquid, or powdered food coloring after the “best by” date does not pose a health danger.

Wilton does suggest, however, that the best practice for using the gel food coloring is to scoop it out with a clean utensil each time in order to prevent any bacteria from being introduced to the container.

Once you pass the best by date, the intensity of the colors or how well the colors integrate into your dough or frosting may be compromised.

Best Conditions For Storing Artificial Food Coloring

Liquid, gel, and gel paste food colorings need to be stored with the lids tightly sealed in order to prevent evaporation.

Powdered food coloring should also be stored in an air-tight container, but for the opposite reason — to keep moisture out.

All these types of food coloring are shelf-stable at room temperature, between 65 and 85 degrees. 

There is no need for refrigeration or freezing. You should also keep the food coloring stored in a dark cabinet.

Direct sunlight or continued exposure to light may degrade the intensity of the color.

If you store food coloring properly, you will be able to keep it for a long time, even if you have opened it previously.

Food coloring that has never been opened will be good indefinitely if stored in these conditions.

Problems Expired Food Coloring Could Cause

Artificial food colorings past the best by date don’t pose any health hazards, but they might not work as well in a recipe if they are extremely old.

They may dry up or crystalize, and if you try to use them, the color may be uneven instead of deep and rich like you are accustomed to. 

As for powdered food coloring, as long as it is stored in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight, it should be good to use indefinitely. 

In the past, there were many kinds of artificial food dyes that did cause problems for people.

Today there are only six synthetic dyes approved for use in foods by both the FDA in America and the European Food Safety Association (EFSA).

There are a couple of other colors that one or the other country allows.

If you have concerns about consuming foods with artificial food colorings and how they might affect your health or the health of a loved one, you should talk with your healthcare professional. 

Food Coloring And Hyperactivity

Some people believe that artificial food coloring may lead to hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in children. 

Over the last 50 years, regulatory agencies and research groups have conducted many studies, all with conflicting information.

Some confirm that artificial dyes lead to hyperactivity in children, while others show that they do not. If you are concerned, you should discuss it with your healthcare professional. 

Food Coloring And Cancer

Another confusing and controversial topic is whether or not food colorings contribute to cancer.

Some studies of Blue 2 and Red 3 indicate that consuming them in extremely high doses may contribute to the development of cancer in animals.

However, other studies have demonstrated that these two products do not increase the likelihood of cancer.

Due to this concern, however, most food companies use Red 40 instead, which does not show up as a cancer threat in any studies.

Most medical and food studies professionals agree that the food coloring used today is safe to eat. 

Food Coloring and Allergies

A confirmed possible danger is that of allergies. Some people have genuine dangerous allergic reactions to food colorings.

If you have hives, asthma symptoms, or difficulty breathing, you should discuss the problem with your healthcare professional.

Natural Food Colorings 

Because of the concerns discussed above, many food companies are moving away from adding artificial food coloring.

They are making products without food coloring or using colors made from plants and sometimes bugs.

Depending on the company you choose to purchase from, many natural food colors are certified organic, non-GMO, kosher, gluten-free, and vegan.

You should carefully read all labeling to ensure that these products meet your dietary needs. 

Natural Food Colorings 

Natural sources of red food coloring are beets, elderberries, and the cochineal scale insect. Turmeric is a popular source for yellow, matcha for green, and spirulina for blue. 

When you use natural food coloring, you should pay attention to the expiration date. Because these products are plant-based, the expiration dates should be followed.

Make Your Own Natural Food Colorings

You can make your own natural food colorings and use them immediately or make them and store them in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Remember that when you make food coloring, the colors will be more pastel than truly vibrant artificial colors.

Natural Pink Food Coloring

To make pink food coloring, use beets. You can grate beets into a piece of cheesecloth or muslin and squeeze the juice into your frosting or batter.

Roast the beets first, then grate them or run them through the food processor for a deeper color. You can then squeeze the juice into your dish.

You can preserve the beet food coloring in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. 

Other options for pink or red colors include cherries, hibiscus, rose, or raspberry.

Natural Purple Food Coloring

You can use blackberries or blueberries for lavender to bluish-purple food coloring. Run the berries through a food processor with a little water or macerate them in a dish.

Then press them through a fine-mesh sieve to separate the skins from the juice. Add it directly to your frosting or store it in the refrigerator for 2 weeks. 

Natural Green Food Coloring

If you have ever had green pasta, it was probably tinted with spinach. You can use fresh or frozen spinach to make green food coloring.

If you start with fresh spinach, cover it with water in a pan and boil it for 5 minutes.

Then drain off most of the liquid. Place the spinach (cooked or frozen and thawed) along with a little water in a food processor and blend until smooth.

Add additional water a tablespoon at a time if needed to improve blending.

Press the mixture through your fine mesh strainer to remove any remaining clumps and store it in the refrigerator.

Other options for green food coloring include kale or liquid chlorophyll.

Pile of Spinach

When you shop for liquid chlorophyll, read the labels because some have added sodium or mint to improve the taste, which might impact your baking. 

Natural Yellow Food Coloring

Turmeric is the best choice for a natural yellow food coloring agent. In fact, it is likely to stain whatever container you store it in, so don’t keep it in your best Tupperware. You can use powdered turmeric and stir it directly into your frosting or batter.

If you prefer, you can make a liquid dye by dissolving 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder into half a cup of water.

Then boil the mixture and reduce it by half. Use only a small amount of your dye for yellow and more to make orange.

Saffron is also an excellent choice for yellow and orange food coloring, but it is much more expensive than turmeric. 

Natural Blue Food Coloring

Blue is a difficult natural food color to make. Oddly enough, you can make it with red cabbage.

Chop a fourth of red cabbage and boil it in a saucepan with one cup of water. After it reaches a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.

Strain the liquid through a sieve to remove the pieces of cabbage. Then, stir in 1 teaspoon of baking soda to turn the liquid blue.

Keep boiling the liquid until it is at least reduced by half. The more you reduce it, the more intense the blue food coloring becomes. Store your new blue coloring in the refrigerator.

Final Thoughts

Adding food coloring makes food more vibrant and appealing. The best by date on artificial food coloring indicates that the colors will work at their best.

There is no health threat to using “expired” artificial food coloring.

On the other hand, if you are using natural food coloring made from vegetables and other plants, you should pay attention to the expiration dates.

Natural ingredients can spoil. When you make your own food coloring, keep it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for no more than two weeks.

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