Thursday, March 7, 2013

Green Pancakes (and a little bit about food coloring)

St. Patrick's Day is coming up, and I wanted to make something fun and green for it. Not long ago, I would've just reached for a bottle of green food coloring. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, the hey day of purple ketchup, those new blue M&Ms, Squeeze-It "juice" drinks, cereal that is marketed by its ability to change the color of milk, and gum that dyes the chewer's mouth different colors, so I think my generation is a little desensitized to say the least.

green pancakes
Those little bottles of dye seem so innocent, but they've been strongly linked to hyperactivity and negative behavioral changes in otherwise normal, healthy children. Dyes that we believed to be safe were later shown to be toxic (Orange 1) or carcinogenic (Red 2) - fortunately these two dyes were pulled from production, but the same can't be said for Red 40, Red 3, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, dyes that are known carcinogens or often contaminated with known carcinogens.

And they're just plain gross - the nine major food colorings are made from petroleum. Who wants to eat that? The director of The Center for Science in the Public Interest writes "[t]hese synthetic chemicals do absolutely nothing to improve the nutritional quality or safety of foods, but trigger behavior problems in children, and, possibly, cancer in anybody."

The European Union agrees - processed foods there either use naturally derived colors (annatto, tumeric, beet juice) or come with a warning about artificial color and the dangers they pose. For more about processed foods and their safer European counterparts, look at 100 Days of Real Food's war on Mac and Cheese or Food Babe's discovery.

A New York Times article states that the use of artificial food dyes "has gone up fivefold in the past 50 years." That may not sound that terrible... until you realize that we now consume over 15 million pounds of food coloring annually. So adding a few drops of dye to a breakfast food is only adding to the problem since most foods the average American child eats will already have added coloring to make them more seem healthier, more appealing, or just more fun.

The FDA's own website says that, "color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat" [boldface added]. And you don't have to look far to see how true that it - food coloring is in cereal, macaroni and cheese, breakfast bars, yogurt, maple syrup, soda, chips - and even some healthy-seeming foods like vitamins and farmed salmon.

All that to say, I decided not to add green food coloring to make festive pancakes. Instead, I added some color and some extra vitamins.... with spinach. And my toddler devoured them. These pancakes taste slightly different than traditional pancakes, but they do not taste like spinach. My husband, who didn't see me make them, tried one and said, "These are good pancakes. But why are they green?" I used coconut oil instead of butter and maple syrup instead of cane sugar because I wanted the stronger flavors for obvious reasons (but you could easily sub butter and sugar, if you prefer).

I do not believe in sneaking and hiding vegetables because I want my daughter to learn to appreciate fruits and vegetables on their own terms. That said, if your kids are grossed out by spinach, use this as an opportunity to talk about where food colors - natural and artificial - come from and why these particular pancakes are green - but maybe after they've already eaten a couple. :-)

Printable Version Here
Makes 12 medium sized pancakes


4 c. spinach leaves, rinsed well, patted dry, and lightly packed (yes, that's right: four cups)
2 eggs
1 T. coconut oil, melted
1 tsp. real vanilla extract
2 T. maple syrup
1/3 c. + 1 T. milk

1 1/2 c. flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt

1 T. butter, cut into three pieces (for cooking)
butter and maple syrup for serving

  1. Heat up your skillet over medium heat.
  2. In a blender, combine the eggs and spinach until they're thoroughly blended. The eggs will get really fluffy and "grab" the spinach.                                                                                           
  3. Stir the milk, oil, vanilla extract, and maple syrup into the wet mixture.  
  4. In a large bowl, combine all of the dry ingredients.                       
  5. Pour the spinach mixture into the dry and stir gently until combined. (This batter will be really thick, but that's okay - the spinach will supply the rest of the liquid when it's cooked).
  6. Melt about a teaspoon of butter on the skillet and spoon 4 dollops of batter onto the skillet. 
  7. After about 2 minutes, when the batter begins to bubble, flip the pancakes and cook for about 2 minutes on the other side. Repeat 6 & 7 until the batter is gone, adding remaining butter to the skillet before cooking each batch.
  8. Serve with butter and syrup. Happy St. Patrick's Day!
spinach pancakes

Want more naturally brightly colored treats?

Red Velvet Pancakes - with beets!
Natural Rainbow Cake