What a gorgeous cake! Dyes and fake foods

“Oh my!  What a gorgeous cake,” she exclaimed!

True – some cake decorators can construct amazing artistic designs that make you feel badly to cut into the dessert and eat it.  To me though – the most deflating moment is to take a bite of some incredibly ornate structure of cake mastery only to find it tastes like chemicals and plastic.  The point to edible art is that it should first and foremost be – edible.

Edible.  Capable of being eaten.  Though perhaps the mediocrity of that word shouldn’t be taken so literally.  If something can by definition be eaten, does it mean that it should be?  No.  We all had a kid in our first grade class who ate the white school glue.  They did so because it had a sweet aroma that appealed to them.  It’s one of the reasons school glue is manufactured and labeled, “non-toxic.”  There will always be a child who wants to eat it.  The ingredients that are in some of the designer cakes are on par with the school glue scenario. 

Why are people paying thousands of dollars for intricately constructed wedding cakes that have to have the top layer peeled off like wrapping paper, just to reach the cake and filling only to find, they’re not that tasty.  That is madness.  (Side note – Most pre-packaged fondant should be required by the FDA to have its own classification of “food” product.)

Food dyes,  vegetable shortening and powdered sugar  

They bother me even more, because they’re rampant and huge on children’s cakes.  What is the first thing that most parents ask for on a child’s cake?  Primary colors.  Vibrant reds, blues, greens, oranges and yellows.  As a parent, you really should read about what is used for making average food dyes and the side effects of consuming mass quantities of it.  

I have two words for you:  Red frosting  

Red frosting is one of the most difficult shades to truly achieve.  Some of the dyes sold are capable of getting results quickly, but most, and the most common that are readily available particularly to home-bakers take a ridiculous amount of coloring to achieve a true primary shade of red.  It’s terrible for you from a health perspective and honestly it tastes awful as well.  They even sell the dye in “No-taste, Red,” because the amount that it takes overwhelms the frosting and then people complain about the flavor.  Blue frosting and black also require large amounts of coloring to be added and create that bitter taste that ruins the flavor of the dessert.  

Many people would argue that it’s a one-time event and the health of the food shouldn’t be a factor.  It’s meant to be a dessert that contains sugar, so you enjoy it and just get over it.  Normally I agree that there are events when you should just enjoy the food and not worry about it, but if you can observe someone eat a dessert and then be noticeably effected by it on a chemical level – to me, that’s not worth it.  This holds especially true when we’re talking about children.

Food dyes have been directly tied to behavioral disorders, aggression, rage-issues, and other emotional ups and downs that are diagnosed as manic depression, bi-polar disorder and a host of others.  If someone, particularly a child, who is sensitive to the foods they consume, you could observe them go from completely calm to wildly erratic and emotionally unhinged in a very brief period of time after consuming one piece of cake with dyed frosting, colored dust, shortening and powdered sugar.  

Seeing Red Report – Lisa Y. Lefferts, M.S.P.H., Senior Scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest

Shortening – vegetable oil solids: An Eye-Witness Account

Arguably worse than straight lard by medical standards.  For me personally, the greatest proof of this wretched “food product,” was during a cake decorating class my mother and I took together.  We both took the Wilton Cake Decorating class offered by Michaels. During Course 1, we both made the same cake for decorating.  A yellow cake with standard vanilla frosting.  We both made decorator consistency icing for the piping.  After class, we both had our cakes in the same container and decided to stop at Panera Bread for coffee.  Both cakes in the same container in the backseat of her car in the evening in Spring.  The only difference – since the cakes had to go home with us and eventually be fed to people we knew, I elected to make my buttercream frosting out of real butter.  My mother made her’s using the recipe provided with the called-for vegetable shortening.  They didn’t intend to eat it.  My parents may eat the cake, but they’d scrape off the frosting.

Why do “they” use shortening?  

  • It’s white and it’s cost-effective.  
  • It allows for the pristine white frosting and just a little FYI for you: To maintain that perfect white color they use “clear,” vanilla extract, which yep – you guessed it, is imitation. Ever seen a clear or white vanilla bean pod?  I didn’t think so.  
  • Vegetable shortening is not dependent upon temperature sensitive conditions either.  If you make a cake out of pure butter in the south, the odds are your perfectly piped peonies will perish.  Hence, vegetable shortening has little temperature variance so you can pipe and sculpt to your hearts content without fear of melting.  Never mind you’re serving your guests poison. (Although – worth noting – you can buy Palm shortening at health food stores which maintains the same temperature control, but does not hold the same ill health effects as standard vegetable shortening).

We ventured into Panera Bread and as it always happens with us, time passed quickly, before we knew it, we’d been in there for almost two-hours chatting away.  When we got back to my house, I took my cake out of the backseat of her car, which had no pest issues whatsoever to her knowledge, yet it was covered in sugar ants.  Her cake, in the same container, was completely untouched and ant-free.  So apparently insects are smarter than humans?  For me, this sealed the deal on any arguments anyone could have over using shortening in our foods.

Powdered Sugar

I despise this product.  Recall the line from the song from Mary Poppins as Julie Andrews sings about, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…”  I challenge anyone to side-by-side attempt to eat a spoonful of sugar, then a spoonful of powdered sugar.  You will experience two very different tastes, let alone textures.  Powdered sugar is bitter, biting, and has some wretched aftertaste you just cannot get past.  This is because powdered sugar also known as Confectioner’s Sugar, is standard white bleached cane sugar, ground ultra fine with corn starch added to it. This is added to prevent caking and prolong shelf life.  Sold in 6x, 10x and Icing Sugar grinds, it is used to make what is sadly and shamefully known as “American Buttercream Frosting,” (which I take great offense to – I’m going to start going out of my way to be called Italian-American or Irish-American, both of which I proudly am, if these are the new standards by which Americans are measured).

What is American Buttercream Frosting you ask?  

Well, you take eight ounces (1 cup) of cheap shortening and mix that with one pound of powdered sugar, about two tablespoons of milk or water, one teaspoon of “clear” vanilla extract and one tablespoon of meringue powder and you get a frosting that will withstand heat, pipes beautifully, spreads luxuriously, has a pasty consistency to the mouth, tastes like every over-sugary piece of processed candy you can recall from childhood that as an adult gives you a toothache with an aftertaste of burnt plastic.  

This is why its being called “American,” buttercream offends me, but that’s for another post, possibly on another site.  I assure you – no one in my family who battled to come to America, and battle they did, took short-cuts or sacrificed quality for appearance and time’s sake.  I am an American, second generation born on both sides and there is nothing synthetic about my family, legacy, heritage or quality.  I know it’s trite, but it bothers me none the less.

Real buttercream frosting is made by tempering egg whites with sugar or honey, then whipping till at room temperature and soft-peak meringue stage, then adding room temperature butter till you’re at a spread/piping consistency and then mixing in your extract flavor of choice.  I’m fairly certain that the expression, “… eat it up with a spoon,” was coined just for this ethereal whipped decadence.  The vegetable shortening and powdered sugar variation is a far cry from true Buttercream.

What this means for our children and ourselves

When you consider the amount of times children attend birthday parties with store-purchased, quick-turnover bakery cakes that are using whatever products are the most cost-effective (read that as synthetic cheap garbage) over so many weekends, compounded by the fact that these dyes and additives are in most pre-packaged foods marketed to children, not to mention also in personal care products – we’re talking about a toxic-level of exposure.  

As a baker, particularly one who specializes in cakes for children through Icing Smiles, where my job is to bake decorator, ornate cakes for children who are already coping with medical issues, it is imperative to me personally to make sure I deliver a product that keeps their health in mind first.  I know, I know – it’s supposed to be about the design!  My argument is – Yes, it is, but their health is more important than our artistic egos in the current popularity of “edible art.”

Cakes used to be about flavor, texture and consistency.  If you could deliver one that was beautiful as well – kudos to you.  Now – with the elevation of shows, sites and publications regarding dessert decorating, we’re seeing a decline in the quality of the food for the attention to decorating detail, sculpting, piping and all the rest.

True Story –

I was at a wedding as a guest.  Everyone marveled over the incredible cake placed at the presentation table.  It was beautiful!  No arguments about it.  The intricate work, the hours upon hours I personally knew it would take to pipe, mold, sculpt, cover, ice and construct this phenomenal work of edible art was mind-boggling.  Then it was time to serve and people lined up in droves to watch the deconstruct and snag a slice. Anything that ornate MUST be incredible to taste!  That seemed to be the collective opinion.

I sat at a table with a woman who had made the statement, “Oh my, what a gorgeous cake,” when she took her spot at the reception.  That same woman returned to the table with her slice, excited to dig into it.  She peeled back the fondant, as today that’s now the common thing to do since it’s assumed it’s going to taste terrible, which it usually does.  She took one bite and I watched her face go from anticipation and desire to one that looked someone just stuffed sweaty gym socks in her mouth.  

I asked, “Are you okay?”

She responded, “How could something so beautiful taste that awful?  My cat’s cat-food smells better than this tastes.”

Wow.  I’m sorry, there’s little else to be said in response to that.  As a baker – I cannot imagine overhearing a worse, disheartening or hurtful comment about my finished product. I was glad he or she wasn’t there to see and hear the dialogue about the cake and this guest wasn’t the only one to give negative feedback.  Sadly, thumbs-down was the popular response.

Beautiful or not – in the end the cake is still something which was meant to be eaten.  A fun food, a fattening food, a sugary food – however you perceive it, it should be delicious, but it doesn’t have to be made from synthetic, chemically altered products for the sake of aesthetics or worse – cost.  How can you put a price on your health?

Keep this in mind:

Everything you eat today that you think you saved money on, will eventually cost you in medical bills, prescriptions and time from your life as well as the quality of it.

So the next time you decide to order a cake, select your colors wisely, or ask the baker/bakery what they use to color their icings.  The following companies provide all-natural food dyes made from beets, pomegranates, turmeric and the like, but without the flavor of those foods.

(This list will be added to as sources come available)

Ask how they make their frosting, do they use shortening or butter?  

Do they use powdered sugar?

Fondant is NOT the only option when it comes to a smooth clean surface.  There is also Rolled Buttercream.  It’s the buttercream frosting made at a thicker consistency so it can be rolled out just like traditional fondant.  If you’re set on a fondant, ask the baker/bakery if they’re making their own or using pre-packaged fondant.  There’s a big difference.

In the end – it’s quite possible to have an extraordinary cake that’s both beautiful or fun as well as easily digestible and kind to your health. You just need to be aware of what to ask and where your money is going.