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Stage Cakes and a Synthetic Dye-Free Adventure

This post is linked to Gluten-Free Wednesdays Cake Challenge.

Back in the spring I took several cake decorating classes in order to pick up a few tips for making the boy’s birthday cakes.  One class I took was called “Stage Cakes.”  Basically, you build a stage out of cake and then build a scene.  I made a Monster Truck cake since I have a house full of testosterone!  I have made a few since then including one that I made this weekend for Mike’s grandpa’s 86th birthday.

One of the unintended consequences for me while taking my cake decorating classes, was the affect the food dyes had on me.  Using such a high volume of concentrated food color gels (and the resulting stains on my hands and cutting boards, of which the black will NOT come off), really made me start think about how safe they are in the long term.

Many kiddos cannot tolerate food dyes and I read a disturbing article on the blue dominoes website that most food dyes contain lead, mercury and arsenic (I’m sure the amounts are minute, but with synthetic food dyes being in so many foods, one has to wonder about the cumulative effect.  Kind of like with gluten, 20 ppm may be deemed “safe” at the moment, but is that 20 ppm per meal, per day, what?).

Red No. 3 has been linked to breast cancer.  I also read an FDA Public Health Advisory on Blue No. 1 which really expressed to me that there is not enough research to support the safety of synthetic food dyes.  I used to take the approach of  “everything in moderation,” but that was before I realized that synthetic food dyes are in EVERYTHING!  There are the obvious products like Koolaid, brightly colored cereals, candies, colored yogurts, etc. but it is also in things that one would not necessarily think of, like pickles, salmon, orange peels, vitamins, children’s medications and the list goes on and on.  I used to think I was doing well by limiting added food coloring to special occasions like birthday cakes but I didn’t realize how often my kids were still consuming them.

So, I have decided to challenge myself and my family to go synthetic dye-free for the next 3 months.  One, I want to see if we can do it; but more importantly, I like to walk in other people’s shoes for a while and want to teach my boys to do the same.  I think it is not only a great way to feel compassion for others, but I think it is a great way to learn about and implement new ideas.  I also want to see if removing the dyes will help with Luke’s eczema.

Over the past few months I have been experimenting with natural food colors derived from fruits and vegetables.  I have purchased a few and I have even tried to color icing with vegetable powders.  I have had two problems with this.  One, the overall color effect was too pastel to impress my kids (namely my 6 year old son), who is subjected to seeing his friends’ brilliantly colored birthday cakes, etc.  Natural Red colorings usually end up pink which would be fine for a girl (or Luke, he loves pink), but Sam would put me out to pasture.  Two, when using vegetable powders, the icing tends to develop a strong vegetable flavor over time.  Spinach flavored icing put me on Sam’s ” bad list” for about a week. 😉

An idea occurred to me during my cake decorating classes from all the extra accents used to decorate cakes, namely toys.  Why not ice a cake with naturally white or chocolate icing and embellish with non-food items that can add a pop of bright color without being edible?  I also got the tip from my instructors that you do not need to limit yourself to specialty cake decorations, you can put pretty much anything on a cake!  I have since been collecting trinkets from craft stores, dollar bins, you name it, to use for decorating cakes and cupcakes.

I tried this out for the first time over the weekend.  Mike’s grandpa was turning 86 and I wanted to personalize the cake to his interest, namely woodworking.  I decided I would try and make a replica of his garage, complete with a workbench, pegboard, etc.  During a recent trip to Hobby Lobby, I discovered the doll house/miniatures section.  I found all sorts of little decorations that I could use on this stage cake.  I also bought a flat piece of wood (I am sure there is a specific name, but I’m no Bob Vila and if I ask my husband, he will laugh at me 😀 ).  I painted it to look like a peg board then attached miniature tools with a hot glue gun.  I used the same approach to make a replica of his work bench.  For some added flair, I embedded a few mini battery-operated lights, called “Celebration Lights” that I found in the wedding section at Michael’s Craft Store.

The following photos are of the cake that Sam, Luke and I decorated (Luke’s main contribution are all the holes in the icing from his repeated “taste testings”).

The black bottom border is ribbon.  The top part of the cake represented one of H.G.’s favorite places to go and spend the afternoon with his late wife (Mike’s grandma), up in the Sandia Mountains.  I made the “H” and “G,” as well as the “86” out of chocolate.  I did this free hand, which is why they are not even; I will use a mold next time so they come out smooth.  I did paint the chocolate with edible gold dust.

Inside the wheel barrel, we added melted chocolate and cake crumbs to make it look like a pile of dirt.

The cake was a big hit, especially with Sam and Luke!  This gives me a lot of hope that their upcoming birthday cakes can be free of synthetic dyes and they will still think they are cool!

Luke really wants a Jungle Junction birthday cake and I am fretting a bit because they do not make any toys for that show yet.  My friend Kristen, who made the Star Wars party invitations for Sam and her son’s co-party last year, is working on designing some Ellyvan and Zooter invitations for Luke’s party.  I am thinking that I could laminate a few of those and prop them on the cake somehow.  Or, maybe even use some Aroma Dough to make the characters and that way Luke won’t be tempted to eat them (okay, who am I kidding? Luke requested a bowl of Aroma Dough for a snack once!).

See why I am beginning to panic, how does one accomplish that ↑↑ without using chemical dyes and with zero toys on the market??

That’s okay, I am up for the challenge and where there is a will…   (and a good bottle of wine), there is a WAY!

(have any idea’s for me?) 😀

I will get the photo tutorial up for building the stage cake within the next few days, it is really easy to do!


  1. A few years ago the school told me that my son couldn't concentrate long enough to succeed. It was suggested that we needed meds. Instead, I did some research and our all natural diet was formed. Today, in 3rd grade, he is deemed a typical or above average student. We cut out anything artificial…colors, flavors and preservatives. I have frieds who have had similar results. Chemicals are NOT good for our bodies and definitely affect our minds. We have had some of the same struggles you are worried about but in the end, it has been so worth it. Now, if he eats something with coloring, within minutes we see such a profound reaction that we know that we are making the right choice for everyone. Good luck on your journey…you won't regret it!

    • Becci:

      Thanks for sharing your story, I have heard several similar stories from other moms too. I am really interested to see if this "experiment" has an impact on my boys behavior.

      It also makes me wonder about my own ADD as a kid. I lived on colored and processed everything back in the 80's, long before the internet allowed information like this to be readily available to parents.

      The funny thing? The cake we made above is a bit cluttered because in my own head, I felt like the cake was "missing" something without the food coloring! It's amazing how those ideas really stick in your head over time.

  2. WOW!! Great cake. Very creative. My daugther's bday is coming up. Though she would likely want something equally as complex as Jungle Junction.

    • Kristin,

      I tell you, this adventure my result in my kids losing TV forever! Or at least limiting their shows to ones that are easier to decorate a cake! 😀 What is your daughter into?

  3. HG's cake turned out so awesome!!! Who is Zooter again-HAHA!!

    • Kristen:

      Thank you. Although I realize I probably just switched out the synthetic food dyes with other potentially toxic materials by using painted decorations and battery operated lights, LOL! Zooter is the little pig, he is Luke's favorite. 😉

  4. awesome cake! Yikes, I have no idea how you would make Luke's cake without dye or toys. Praying the mini toys come quickly. =0)

  5. Lauren Lucille says

    Yummy! Great post! Your blog is just adorable!

  6. Yay for going dye free! Actually, gluten free was way harder than dye free, I think you will do great. That cake is AWESOME, you could enter it in a contest! I love the tip about putting non food items on there as decoration.

    My son LOVES Jungle Junction too. In fact, I have that stupid theme song stuck in my head pretty much all day/every day.

  7. You rock! That cake looks amazing. Thanks for all of the info too – yuck to food dyes. Thank goodness Callum isn't in school yet! I might just have to say NO WAY to fancy cakes and stick to yummy vanilla icing! How's the vitamix!

  8. Here's a link to some naturally dyed easter eggs. I love the color of the bright blue ones (made from cabbage!). This might be something to play around with. Blueberries and cabbage aren't quite as bad as spinach 🙂

    Good luck!

  9. Great job on that cake! My boys loved Legos and I made a lot of birthday cakes with Lego figures on top. Good for you for going dye free. I hope it goes well for you. Thanks for participating in the cake challenge.

  10. Love the stage cake. What fun! You could try Color Flow for the Jungle Junction characters, but it's going to be hard to get the colors right without dye. I say print them out, laminate, and attach to craft sticks. You could make it like a puppet show. 🙂

    • Thanks Heather, that's a great idea with the color flow. I have some natural blue dye on the way from Seelect, but not sure it will work. I have also been toying with the idea of using white chocolate to make the characters (if the natural dye will take in the chocolate). Although, attaching the laminated characters to craft sticks is an awesome idea too and could save a lot of time, LOL! 😀

      Have you taken cake decorating classes too? You have some beautiful cakes on your website!

  11. That cake is amazing! I bet it was very well received. I would have hated to even start eating it and destroy all your work. But I bet it tasted fabulous, too. 🙂

    Okay, I did some googling and found this vegetable-based food coloring that looks pretty darned impressive. I read that one person found it at her local Whole Foods. No Whole Foods here, but I think you have one (if I recall). Check to see if they carry this India Tree product.… For those very large super colorful figures, you might even do those as 2-D use poster board or cardboard, color and decorate, attach a popsicle stick, and then stick them in the cake. When it's time to eat the cake, you just pull them out and cut away. Then Luke will have his Jungle Junction characters to act out little "puppet" shows with Sam and his friends. (As a teacher, I used to make characters and do such "puppet" shows with the kids.)

    Hope that helps! You are clearly the cake queen, so I know you'll tackle this with no problem. 🙂


  12. Gosh, I feel embarrassed now. I didn't even read the comments until AFTER I commented. Seems like Heather and I are on the same track there. LOL Great minds, right? 😉


    • Shirley,

      LOL! Great Minds Indeed! I absolutely LOVE the popsicle/puppet idea and now that I have two separate votes, that is what I will be doing!!! It's a sign. 😉

  13. Kari Jernigan says

    Hi there. I'm new to your site. I LOVE IT! I am about 6 months gluten free. My twin sister and her twin boys have been gluten free (dairy free too) for several years. It took me longer to commit! I am doing sooooo well though. Can't believe how much better my body works. ANYWAY.

    My sister has done my nephews cakes herself. I see you've gotten a few other sites for organic food coloring, but just in case… here's another.…. I've ordered their snow cone syrups and they are awesome. We liked the Organic Blue Bubble Gum Snow Cone Syrup (Vegan, Kosher, Gluten-Free)! Gotta love the blue tongues… it's a childhood right of passage I think :-). Good luck in your cake making! If you ever need to make a real exploding volcano cake gluten and dairy free just let me know… my nephews last science themed bday party was a big hit :-).

    • Kari,

      I just got my shipment from Natures Flavors/Seelect yesterday, including the blue bubble gum syrup! I also ordered the cherry syrup, grape flavored oil and the Fruit Punch drink powder. Haven't tried them yet but will do a review as soon as we do. I agree on the blue tongue being a childhood right of passage! 😀

      Now, an exploding volcano cake that is GF and DF, I would LOVE that recipe! No need to have a party for that cake, that just sounds like a lot of fun! I never would have thought of that one, if you would like to email me the recipe and any photos you have, I would be happy to post it and share with everyone! My email address is: heidi AT adventuresofaglutenfreemom DOT com



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