12 Food Coloring Substitutes [Kid Friendly & Healthy]

Food coloring allows you to perfectly customize your frostings, icings, cakes, white chocolates, batters, eggs, kids’ science experiments, or anything else you can think of that would look great in a crazy color.

Adding food coloring can make a dish, especially dessert, look more appetizing, interesting, or attractive. Kids really love playing around with different color combinations where they can express their creativity through food in this fun and easy way.

Food dyes are available for purchase in any store, but we’ve compiled a list of some of the best food coloring substitutes that you can make right at home!

The best food coloring substitutes come from natural fruits and vegetables that are already rich in color. The best red food coloring comes from beets or cherries, while spinach and matcha powder are best for green shades. We like to use blue spirulina to get vibrant blues, and turmeric is our favorite for yellow food coloring. If you need to color non-food substances, we recommend using tempera paint since it’s kid friendly, non-toxic, and super easy to clean!

Best Food Coloring Substitutes

1. Red – Beet Juice/Powder – Best Red or Pink Natural Food Coloring

Beets make a wonderful food coloring substitute because of their rich color and neutral flavor. Did you know that red velvet cake was originally colored using beet juice?

You can use either pure beet juice or beet powder mixed with a little water. To make your own beet juice, boil a few large, cut up beets over medium heat and simmer until the water turns nice and red. Then add as much as you need as a food coloring substitute for frostings, icings, or the perfect red velvet cake.

To use beet powder, mix the powder with water in a 1:4 ratio. If you want a deeper red color, simply add more powder. Want a paler red? Add more water. It’s that easy!

You can even add a little baking powder to get closer to a pink shade. We especially like to use beet powder for food coloring experiments like slime, playdough, or anything else that looks better with a little red added, because you can just sprinkle it right into your mixtures.

You can make a quick and easy 4-ingredient DIY red playdough with 1 cup of cornstarch, 2 cups of baking powder, and 1 ½ cups of water.

Then you add the beet juice! Just mix the first three ingredients and cook over medium heat for 4-5 until it starts to form a dough. Once it cools add 1 tbsp of beet powder and watch it change colors! Add more coloring as needed.

2. Red – Cherries – Best Tasting Food Coloring Substitute

Cherries are a fabulous food coloring substitute for icing and other sweet treats that benefit from the sweet and tart flavor of cherries. Cherries have a rich, red coloring that will brighten up any icing, frosting, or smoothie while adding that vibrant hue.

To use cherries, just puree and strain them until you get a nice, smooth consistency. Then add as much as you need to get the right color. Remember that the cherries add flavor too, so keep that in mind as you adjust your ratios. 

If buying jarred cherries, you can often just use the juice to color your food. We recommend using either Maraschino cherries for a candy-colored red, or Bordeaux cherries for a deeper, richer color.

For buttercream frosting, we recommended substituting the vanilla for cherry juice. You can also reduce the amount of milk you add for more cherry juice as well.

3. Green – Spinach – Most Nutritious Food Coloring Substitute

Spinach is the perfect natural substitute for green food coloring to get a nice, soft green hue in whatever you put it in. It’s also super healthy, which is a big plus!

While we don’t necessarily recommend adding spinach to sweet treats like frosting or icing (unless you want a little counter to all that sugar!), we do love to use spinach in smoothies, omelets, pasta doughs, or even healthy muffins to add that great green color!

Spinach also works great for coloring things you don’t want to eat, like a kid-friendly DIY playdough or slime! Just replace the water in your slime recipe for spinach juice in a 1:1 ratio.

To make green food coloring with spinach, mix together 2 cups of fresh spinach with a cup of water and boil until the color seeps out, about 20 minutes.

After it cools a little, mix it in a blender until smooth and strain it so you have a nice, consistent coloring to use. You can even cook down canned spinach until you get the color you want and follow the same process.

4. Green – Matcha

Matcha powder is a type of green tea popular in East Asia that uses young tea leaves and crushes them into a powder. The powder is a beautiful bright green that mixes easily into any batter or mixture to add a soft, green color.

Matcha has a very light flavor, but some say that it tastes a little like grass if you use too much, so keep that in mind when adding it to sweet treats like white cakes or frostings. We love to use matcha powder to color smoothies, crepes, eggs, pancakes, mashed potatoes, and even milkshakes!

Because matcha comes in powder form, it’s easy to add to kids’ experiments by just sprinkling a little matcha in to get a light green color.

To make a mossy green playdough, use the DIY recipe above and add 2-3 tbsp of matcha powder. You don’t have to worry about the flavor, so add as much as you’d like to get the perfect shade.

5. Blue – Blue Spirulina Powder – Best Food Coloring Substitute for Intense Color

Blue Spirulina Powder works great as a blue food coloring substitute for frostings, icings, cake batters, or even smoothies if you want a vibrant breakfast!

Blue Spirulina powder is a 100% natural bright blue pigment taken from blue-green algae. It is vegan, soy-free, gluten free, dairy-free, paleo, and even has a high level of nutritional content that’s great for you and your kids!

The color is super vibrant, so you only need to use a little bit at a time to get a great punch of color. The flavor of the blue spirulina is slightly salty on its own, but that flavor completely disappears in whatever you put it in.

Spirulina is easy to mix into DIY playdough or slime for a food coloring substitute that won’t make the kiddos sick if they accidentally eat a little!

Start by adding in 1 tsp of blue spirulina to your cooled playdough and add more as needed (you don’t need much). For slime, add 1 tsp to color the water when mixing your recipe, or simply mix it in at the end.

6. Blue/Purple – Red Cabbage – Best Purple Natural Food Coloring

Even though red cabbage is red to look at, it actually makes the perfect blue natural food coloring when you cook it in boiling water and add a little baking soda!

All you need to do is to rinse and cut up a head of red cabbage. Boil that for about 15 minutes until the water is thick and drain the purple liquid into a bowl.

To get that nice blue color, add a ½ tsp of baking soda to the liquid until you get a soft, sky blue color. You can also cook down jarred red cabbage and follow the same process. 

Keep in mind that adding the baking soda will change the flavor slightly. Alternatively, you can add a little bit of matcha powder, which will also result in a nice blue color. This blue food coloring is great for icings, frostings, pancakes, smoothies, and even yogurt!

To make purple slime, replace the water in your slime recipe for plain red cabbage water without the baking soda. For blue, we recommend using the spirulina option above.

7. Yellow – Turmeric – Best Natural Yellow Food Coloring

Turmeric does a great job of coloring anything it touches a bright yellow color, so it works great as an all-natural food coloring for anything you’d like to add a golden hue to.

Since turmeric doesn’t have a very strong flavor, it works great in anything from sweet treats to savory dishes and anything in between.

Simply add a little turmeric powder straight into your icing, batter, or smoothie and immediately watch as the color transforms! The more you add, the brighter the yellow color will be, until eventually it turns orange.

Turmeric is great for homemade playdough as a food coloring substitute because you don’t need to worry about how much flavor you’re adding.

If you want to use turmeric as a dye for something like easter eggs, boil 1 tsp of turmeric with ⅓ cup of water and reduce it down for about 20 minutes.

For slime and playdough, you can add 1 tsp of turmeric for the final ingredient, adding as much as you need for with yellow or orange coloring.

8. Yellow – Saffron

Although saffron is usually red in color, it has been used as a yellow dye in fabrics for years, and it also works great as a natural food coloring substitute for anything you want to add a yellow color to.

Saffron has a strong flavor and can be expensive, so make sure you only use as much as you need and reserve saffron for savory dishes or egg dying. Simply boil ½ cup of water (or vinegar for dyeing eggs) with a few threads of saffron until it turns a golden color.

Alternatively, you can add saffron right into dishes like rice, eggs, or smoothies and watch them turn a gorgeous yellow color right before your eyes!

9. White – Icing

Icings and frostings are naturally white because of the powdered sugar and egg whites, so you don’t need to add anything to make them whiter.

For the purest white icing or frosting, we recommend using clear/white vanilla instead of regular vanilla, and white sugar instead of golden sugar or sugar in the raw.

If you want to make a red into a pink or create a lighter shade of blue, we recommend adding white icing or frosting to your mix to get that lighter color.

White Icing

Alternatively, you can purchase White Natural Food Color made with titanium dioxide and vegetable gum if you need to add white without adding a bunch of sugar!

10.  Tempera Paint – Best Non-Food Food Coloring Substitute

Tempera paint is a versatile child-friendly substitute for food coloring that is perfect for experiments like playdough and slime, and it allows kids to choose from a wide variety of options that they can easily customize.

The paint is easily washable so you don’t have to worry about the mess, and its thick texture is perfect for adding to any liquids or mixtures you want. Just add a few drops of your favorite colors and mix it in for as much or as little color as desired.

Tempera paint even comes in white, which can sometimes be hard to find in other dyeing options, so this is great if you have something specific in mind, like a marbled playdough.

Add 2 tbsp of white paint to colored playdough and knead it in gently to get a white swirl throughout. The longer you knead it, the more it will mix with the existing color, so be careful!

Non-toxic Acrylic Paint

Non-toxic acrylic paint is a great non-food substitute you can use to add color to fun kid’s experiments like DIY slime, playdough, or silly putty.

Using non-toxic acrylic paint allows you to get an intense, bright color that’s sometimes hard to achieve with natural ingredients. Just add a small amount to color your playdough or slime and mix in as much as you desire without affecting the experiment (if you add too much, your playdough may not form).

Nail polish

Nail polish is another good substitute for food coloring to make slime or playdough because it’s already in liquid form and blends perfectly with anything you mix it into.

Even though you won’t be eating any of your experiments colored with nail polish, make sure you pick up non-toxic brands that are safe for kids, just in case.

Nail polish is one of the few colors you can find in white, so if you want to make something bright white, nail polish is a good way to do it. If you want to add sparkly white nail polish to your playdough, just add 1-2 tbsps until you get all the glittery shine you’re looking for.

What is Food Coloring?

Food colorings are a popular addition to traditional foods that make the color more exciting or appetizing to look at. You can add them to cake batters, pancake batters, crepe batters, or muffin batters to change the color of the whole meal, or you can use them in frostings and icings for a more decorative take.

Food coloring can also be used in non-food items like DIY playdough, slime, or other fun experiments for kids. Since we know kids like to put anything they can grab into their little mouths, it’s always a good idea to use non-toxic colorings that won’t hurt any bellies.

Food Coloring

The most popular food colorings are red, green, blue, and yellow, but you can make a variety of shades and colors by mixing different natural substitutes and getting exactly what you want! Make sure to check out this article to find out, Does Food Coloring Go Bad?

Food Coloring Ingredients

Store-bought food colorings are often artificially dyed and may contain questionable ingredients like aluminum or barium, which are best to be avoided. Common ingredients include water, glycerine, citric acid, sodium benzoate, and a variety of dyes like Red #40 or Yellow #5.

Luckily there are some plant-based food colorings you can buy, but you should be careful with those too if you want to avoid aggravating any particular allergies.

Why Use Natural Food Coloring?

Processed foods are never good for a healthy diet, so cutting out processed food colorings in favor of natural ones is a great step toward making every meal as good for you as possible, even if you’re just adding a little color.

Check out these other benefits below!

Control Your Ingredients

Natural food coloring is preferred as a substitute over store-bought food coloring because it helps you avoid the preservatives, chemicals, or dyes that go into the store-bought versions. You can control what types of natural food coloring you use and which ones are best for your family and diet.

Avoid Allergens

Natural food color substitutes also help you avoid common allergens so you and your kids can still enjoy the creativity that comes with food coloring without worrying about the ingredients.

In store-bought food colorings, some of the most common allergens you might find are carmine, tartrazine, annotto, and saffron, which affect a small percentage of the population who may have thought they were eating something food safe, but found they were allergic to the dye.

By using your own natural food colorings, you know there is nothing added that can trigger an allergic reaction, giving you more control in the kitchen to keep you and your kids safe.

Add Nutrition

Natural food coloring even has the potential to add some nutrition to your meals, like with spinach, matcha, blue spirulina, turmeric, and red cabbage.

  • Spinach contains Vitamins A, C, and K, as well as fiber and potassium.
  • Matcha has plenty of antioxidants that reduce inflammation.
  • Blue spirulina is full of antioxidants that support a healthy immune system.
  • Turmeric is a great anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.
  • Red cabbage contains Vitamin K and is high in fiber, which is great for digestion.

Although you’re only adding small amounts of any type of natural food coloring, it’s still better to add something that is good for your body than colorings that can cause adverse reactions over time.

Want to have some fun with all-natural food coloring substitutes? Check out our Naturally-Colored Rainbow Cake recipe below!

Naturally colored rainbow Cake

Naturally-Colored Rainbow Cake

Yield: 10 servings
Prep Time: 40 minutes
Cook Time: 50 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

This cake is perfect for kids birthday parties or any fun and happy event! This recipe comes together quickly by using a boxed white cake mix that’s perfect for soaking up all the color. Our rainbow cake uses natural ingredients to make red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple layers!

Ingredients

  • 2 boxes White Cake Mix (any brand works fine)
  • 6 Eggs (or according to box)
  • 2 cups of Water (or according to box)
  • ⅔ cups of Oil (or according to box)
  • 1-3 tbsp Beet Powder
  • 5-9 tbsp Turmeric (divided)
  • 4-6 tbsp Matcha Powder
  • 1-3 tbsp Blue Spirulina
  • ¼ cup Red Cabbage Liquid

Instructions

  1. Preheat your oven to 350°F (or according to box) and grease three 8-inch cake pans.
  2. Beat the cake mix with the eggs, water, and oil with an electric mixer in a large bowl for about 2 minutes.
  3. Separate the batter evenly into 6 different bowls. Each bowl will have a little more than a cup of batter.
  4. To make red, start with 1 tbsp of beet powder mixed into the batter and add more as needed.
  5. To make orange and yellow, add 4 tbsp of turmeric to one bowl and 1 tbsp to another. Add as much as needed to make one bowl orange and the other a lighter yellow color.
  6. To make green, start with 4 tbsp of matcha powder and add more as needed. Matcha is light in color, so don’t add too much to affect the taste.
  7. To make blue, start with ½ tbsp of blue spirulina and add more as needed. The blue spirulina is more intense than the other colors, so be careful not to make it too bright.
  8. To make purple, start with 2 tbsp of red cabbage liquid, adding no more than ¼ cup or the batter won’t bake properly.
  9. Pour one color into each of the three cake pans. Cover and save the remaining three colors until the first three have baked.
  10. Bake the first three cakes for 17-19 minutes until the cake begins to come away from the sides of the pan or a toothpick comes out clean.
  11. Cool for at least 10 minutes and remove. Wash out the pans and bake the other three colors until completely baked.
  12. Allow all the cakes to cool before assembling and covering with frosting.
  13. Start with the purple layer first and add a layer of frosting almost to the edges. Repeat this process with the blue, green, yellow, orange, and red cakes. Then cover the entire cake in frosting until the rainbow is completely hidden.
Nutrition Information:
Yield: 10 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 369Total Fat: 21gSaturated Fat: 3gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 17gCholesterol: 112mgSodium: 130mgCarbohydrates: 38gFiber: 10gSugar: 7gProtein: 10g

Naturally-Colored Rainbow Cake

Servings: 10 servings

Prep Time: 40 minutes

Cook Time: 50 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours

To make the most of all your easy and bright natural food colorings, use them to bake a beautiful rainbow cake with layers of stunning colors that will put a smile on anyone’s face.

This cake is perfect for kids birthday parties or any fun and happy event! This recipe comes together quickly by using a boxed white cake mix that’s perfect for soaking up all the color. Our rainbow cake uses natural ingredients to make red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple layers!

Ingredients

  • 2 boxes White Cake Mix (any brand works fine)
  • 6 Eggs (or according to box)
  • 2 cups of Water (or according to box)
  • ⅔ cups of Oil (or according to box)
  • 1-3 tbsp Beet Powder
  • 5-9 tbsp Turmeric (divided)
  • 4-6 tbsp Matcha Powder
  • 1-3 tbsp Blue Spirulina
  • ¼ cup Red Cabbage Liquid

Instructions

  1. Preheat your oven to 350°F (or according to box) and grease three 8-inch cake pans.
  2. Beat the cake mix with the eggs, water, and oil with an electric mixer in a large bowl for about 2 minutes.
  3. Separate the batter evenly into 6 different bowls. Each bowl will have a little more than a cup of batter.
  4. To make red, start with 1 tbsp of beet powder mixed into the batter and add more as needed.
  5. To make orange and yellow, add 4 tbsp of turmeric to one bowl and 1 tbsp to another. Add as much as needed to make one bowl orange and the other a lighter yellow color.
  6. To make green, start with 4 tbsp of matcha powder and add more as needed. Matcha is light in color, so don’t add too much to affect the taste.
  7. To make blue, start with ½ tbsp of blue spirulina and add more as needed. The blue spirulina is more intense than the other colors, so be careful not to make it too bright.
  8. To make purple, start with 2 tbsp of red cabbage liquid, adding no more than ¼ cup or the batter won’t bake properly.
  9. Pour one color into each of the three cake pans. Cover and save the remaining three colors until the first three have baked.
  10. Bake the first three cakes for 17-19 minutes until the cake begins to come away from the sides of the pan or a toothpick comes out clean.
  11. Cool for at least 10 minutes and remove. Wash out the pans and bake the other three colors until completely baked.
  12. Allow all the cakes to cool before assembling and covering with frosting.
  13. Start with the purple layer first and add a layer of frosting almost to the edges. Repeat this process with the blue, green, yellow, orange, and red cakes. Then cover the entire cake in frosting until the rainbow is completely hidden.

Tips

  • You can bake your cakes in 3 batches instead of 2 if you only have two 8-inch cake pans. The batter will hold up in the refrigerator while the others are baking.
  • If your cakes have a bump on top, make sure to slice off the tops so they have flat tops. This will make your cake tower even and prevent it from falling over.
  • Line each of your cake pans with parchment paper to avoid needing to clean the pans in between batter colors.
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