When you bite into a decorated cookie from Fancypants Baking Co., the first thing you’re likely to notice is the silky-smooth royal icing. What your taste buds won’t tell you is all the behind-the-scenes precision it takes to produce vibrant color without artificial food dyes.
“Many kids have sensitivities to artificial colors,” explains Fancypants co-founder Justin Housman. “That was a big thing for us because a lot of our customers have allergies.”
Justin and his partner, Maura Duggan, built a reputation baking artisan cookies in their nut-free kitchen. They pride themselves on using wholesome ingredients such as cage-free eggs and real Madagascar vanilla.
“Originally, food coloring was pretty much the only ingredient we were using that wasn’t natural,” Justin continues. “The advantages of artificial colors are that they are very stable, and you can pretty much match any color. Mixing them is straightforward, like mixing paint.” On the flip side, artificial food colors such as Blue no. 1 and Red no. 40 are synthetically derived.
When Justin and Maura decided to make the switch to plant-based food coloring, the first challenge they faced was sourcing. “Natural colors are really not widely available,” says Justin. “There are very few producers in the U.S.”
But finding reliable suppliers was only the beginning: “Natural colors are far more complicated because they come from fruits and vegetables. For example, most of our reds come from beets. Depending on the season, beets can be almost fuchsia or they might be more orange. At this time of year, the beets are more of a fuchsia color. If we’re trying to get a good red for Valentine’s Day cookies, we have to add and blend with an orange color that’s made from annatto or a yellow color that’s made from turmeric.”
Switching to plant-based colors impacted everything from frosting recipes to kitchen protocols. “It forces us to have to mix everything in small batches and to test every color. We have to have talented decorators who can notice what’s going on with the color from batch to batch,” Justin says. “It literally took us years to get good at it.”
For Fancypants, the challenge was clearly worth it. Justin and Maura take pride in serving up artisan cookies with ingredients they truly feel good about, and now their delicious baked goods are reaching even more cookie-lovers at Whole Foods Market stores. Our Quality Standards prohibit artificial colors in any of the food we sell, and we’re proud to offer plant-based food colors for home bakers too.
In speaking with Justin, one gets the sense of a can-do guy who relishes the opportunity to find creative solutions: “Working with natural materials makes it much more like art than science, but you still have to be very scientific in your approach,” he concludes.
Have you made the switch to plant-based food colors in your own baking? Tell us about it in the comments.