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You are here: Home > All About Hand Dyeing > About Dyes > Food Coloring

Amazon Product Links

Kool-Aid Dye

Kool-Aid Blue Raspberry Unsweetened Drink Mix

Unsweetened Kool-Aid is a handy form of Food Coloring that can be used to dye silk and wool

Wyler's® Cherry Drink Mix

Wyler's® Grape Drink Mix

Kool-Aid® Lemonade

Butler's® Blue Food Color

Using Food Coloring as a Textile Dye for Protein Fibers

Food Colorings are a subset of the class of dyes known as Acid Dyes. They can be used to dye protein fibers only: that is, wool, silk, and also sometimes nylon. Heat is required; room-temperature dyeing will usually produce much less washfast results.

Remember: You cannot dye cotton with food coloring!

Sometimes people ask me how they can use food coloring to tie-dye cotton shirts. The answer is simple: you can't. Food colorings lack any way to permanently attach to cotton, so they will just wash out, leaving at most a pale stain: enough to ruin a shirt, perhaps, but not to decorate it. They can be used only for wool, silk, other animal fibers such as angora or cashmere, and also nylon (but no other synthetic), because the chemical structure of nylon somewhat resembles that of wool. You cannot dye other synthetic fibers, such as acrylic or polyester, with food dye, and you cannot dye other plant fibers, such as linen, rayon, or hemp. See About Dyes to select the correct type of dye for these and other fibers.

How can I tie-dye with food coloring?

Obtain some wool or silk and follow the instructions on the page "How can I tie dye with Kool-aid or food coloring?". Afterwards, remember to wash only in cool water, by hand, as food dyes are not nearly as washfast as some other dyes.

How can I dye wool yarn with food coloring?

Dyeing wool yarn with food coloring is very easy and gratifying. Wool takes food dyes more intensely than silk, resulting in deeper, richer colors. Wind the yarn into a skein that will allow even dyeing, and tie carefully to prevent tangling while permitting full access to the yarn. Soak the yarn in water, mixed with vinegar (1/4 cup per quart of water) for half an hour, sprinkle on your unsweetened drink mix or food coloring so that the colors please you (or, for solid smooth even colors, remove the yarn, dissolve the dyes in the acidulated water, and add the yarn back), and heat the yarn in the dye. The heating may be accomplished on the stovetop in a non-aluminum pan (use a stainless steel, enamel, or glass pot, or glass canning jars placed in any large pot with some water around them), in a microwave oven, or even in a plastic bag to be left all day in a hot sunny window. After heating the dye, let it cool gradually to room temperature, then rinse the newly dyed yarn by hand with cool water.

A good article on dyeing wool yarn with food coloring may be found at the Wool Festival web site.

How can I buy food coloring?

Food dye may be purchased in several forms. Many grocery stores in the US sell little sets of four bottles of food coloring, usually near other cake-baking supplies. These are not ideal for color mixing, as the blue is too greenish and the red too orangish for it to be possible to mix a good purple; however, they are very readily available.

More colors may be obtained in the form of cake coloring, such as in Wilton cake decorating colors (look under 'icing colors & sets').

The seasonally available Easter egg dyes that are marketed for children are food colors, as well. (Note that the Ukranian art of Pysanky often involves the use of dyes that are not food-safe.)

KoolAid and similar drink mix products are also good sources of some of the artificial food colors, complete with citric acid to serve as the acid (be sure not to get the kind with sugar added!); see How can I tie dye with Kool-aid or food coloring?

A web site containing a wide range of food dyes is The Coloration Station. In addition to the food colorings, the Coloration Station also sells dyes that are safe for use on the skin - D&C colors - so they must be safe for use in dyeing, although they are not considered safe to eat. Note that the "lake" colors are insoluble; you want the non-lake colors, for most dyeing purposes.

Which dyes are used in food coloring?

Many colorings that are legal for use in foods in one country are banned in another; conversely, those dyes allowed in the latter country may be banned in the former. In the US, the list of legal synthetic food dyes is short:
dye nameF D & C food
dye number
Colour Index
E or INS
allura red red dye #4016035E129
brilliant blue FCF (also known as erioglaucine)blue #142090E133
sunset yellow FCF  yellow #615985E1 10
indigotine blue #273015E132
fast green FCF green #342053INS 143
erythrosine red #345430E127
tartrazine yellow #519140E102

All other food colorings in the US, aside from a few natural dyes such as annatto, turmeric (spice), beet extract, and carmine (red insects, used to color yogurt and other foods), are composed of different combinations of the above. Turmeric makes a good though short-lived direct dye on cotton, silk, or wool; cochineal, made from the same bugs as carmine, is an excellent dye for cotton, silk, or wool. Unfortunately, beets are never a good dye for textile fibers.

Actual dyes used in some specific products

McCormick brand Food Colorings

Yellow Food Colortartrazine (FD&C yellow #5) and allura red (FD&C red#40)water, propylene glycol, and propylparaben as a preservative
Blue Food Colorbrilliant blue FCF (FD&C blue #1) and allura red (FD&C red #40)water, propylene glycol, and propylparaben as a preservative
Green Food Colortartrazine (FD&C yellow #5) and brilliant blue FCF (FD&C blue #1)water, propylene glycol, and propylparaben as a preservative
Red Food Color allura red (FD&C red #40) and erythrosine (FD&C red#3)water, propylene glycol, and propylparaben as a preservative

Kool-Aid® Unsweetened Soft Drink Mix

"Blastin' Berry Cherry"® allura red (FD&C red#40)citric acid, calcium phosphate, modified cornstarch, artificial flavor, ascorbic acid, natural flavor
lemonade flavor tartrazine (FD&C yellow#5), "artificial color"*, tartrazine lake (FD&C yellow#5 lake)citric acid, calcium phosphate, maltodextrin, salt, natural flavor, lemon juice solids, ascorbic acid, BHA
strawberry allura red (FD&C red#40)citric acid, salt, maltodextrin, calcium phosphate, ascorbic acid, artificial flavor
"Blue Moon Berry"® brilliant blue FCF (FD&C blue #1)citric acid, calcium phosphate, maltodextrin, ascorbic acid, artificial flavor, natural flavor, tocopherol
orange tartrazine (FD&C yellow#5), "artificial color"*, allura red (FD&C red#40), allura red lake (FD&C red#40 lake)citric acid, maltodextrin, salt, calcium phosphate, natural flavor, ascorbic acid, artificial flavor, BHA
grape allura red (FD&C red#40), brilliant blue FCF (FD&C blue #1)citric acid, calcium phosphate, salt, maltodextrin, modified cornstarch, artificial flavor, ascorbic acid
*"Artificial color" without an FD&C certification number means that the color is of natural origin but is unrelated to the labled flavor. This might mean turmeric or another "natural" food coloring which is not "natural" to lemonade.

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