If you read carefully the ingredients on the colored ''Goldfish'' crackers box, you'll notice some interesting ones. Beet powder, spinach and paprika among others. People heard about the potential ill effects of artificial dyes, and some companies responded by using natural dyes, many of which come from vegetables. Of course, when you tell kids this, they say ''gross!'' and refuse to eat the crackers. Better to not tell them.
Dyes come from a variety of sources and can be used for many things. We use them in foods, for clothing and textiles, and for crafts such as basket making. We'll start with a discussion about artificial dyes in food, to understand why natural dyes may be a better alternative.
Adding dye to food happens for a number of reasons, the most common ones are to make food ''fun,'' to make food look the color it was before processing (many foods lose their color when cooked or processed), to add color to colorless foods (i.e. adding green color to lime sherbet), and to enhance naturally occurring colors (i.e. making oranges more orange).
Eggs can be dyed with natural materials.
Photo by Sarah Hatfield
There are different categories of dyes. Naturally occurring (pigments from natural sources) are not regulated. Water-soluble dyes are used in beverages and baked and dairy goods. Non-soluble dyes, called ''lakes,'' are used in hard candies, chewing gums, and in coatings for pills and medications. Items in the last two categories are regulated and required to be listed as ingredients on all products.
Studies have shown that certain artificial food dyes cause hyperactivity in children. As a result, the UK has voluntarily banned all chemicals that show this result. The worst offenders are the red and yellow dyes (in the US listed as Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6).
It is possible to get yellow and red dye naturally, though. Common items can result in yellow, such as turmeric and saffron. Natural red dye is called cochineal (or E120) and is derived from an insect. Beets also create a red color.
But food isn't the only thing that we like to color. Clothing is dyed an array of colors with an equal array of sources. Most dyes are synthetic now, and are classified as to how the dye works, not what it is made out of. But there are a variety of natural dye sources, too, and this is what I really want to talk about.
Easter is right around the corner, and a popular event associated with this is the dyeing of Easter eggs. Eggs have long been seen as a symbol of new life or the return of life and have been part of many different celebrations over the course of history. Decorating them varies from culture to culture, but it is a recurrent theme throughout the world.
Many of us have fond memories from childhood of decorating eggs, dipping them with little wire holders into brightly colored cups filled with neon dyes. I smile as a write about it. My dad would then draw very elaborate drawings on them with a felt tipped pen. I adored it as an annual tradition.
All of this information is background to the idea that we are having a workshop on March 31 about natural egg dyeing. Last year this workshop filled up and was a great success. And I have to admit that the best part was that I got to play at home and dye dozens of eggs. The more I colored, the more I wanted to color. It was one of those activities that led to more and more creativity.
Using natural dyes to color eggs is really easy, though not instantaneous. You need basically the same ingredients and supplies as you do for traditional egg dyeing - eggs, dyes, containers for the dyes, a wire to dunk eggs, and vinegar. The only additional things are pots for cooking the dyes.
Like I said, it is quite time consuming, some of the dyes take overnight to get the richest colors. And none of them are the neon colors that you recall from childhood, rather they are all earthy tones with varying intensities. From red cabbage to coffee grounds, there are so many things that work to dye the eggs. There are other things that I think should work, and don't. The whole experience was a grand experiment last year, and I am counting down the days until I can start this year.
If you are interested in learning how to prepare the dyes, how to dye the eggs and other earth-friendly variations on the traditional egg decorating, come and join us! The workshop is on Saturday, March 31, from 10 a.m. to noon. You'll need to bring your own eggs - no more than six hard-boiled white eggs per person (and you can easily get the effect with fewer). Please call to register by March 28.
This is just one offering in the spring Adult Learning Series at Audubon. We're located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The center is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, except Sunday when we open at 1 p.m. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is viewing of the Bald Eagle, Liberty. Visit jamestownaudubon.org or call 569-2345 for more information about upcoming events.