Skip to main content

The Chicago River is dyed green for the city's St. Patrick's day celebrations on March 13, 2016.James Foster/The Associated Press

Each year, roughly half a million Irish enthusiasts arrive, wearing green, to ogle green – the Chicago River, that is, which is turned into a vast emerald-tinged pool to pay homage to St. Patrick and his special day.

Coloured with vegetable dye – which lasts about five hours before dissipating – the tradition is just one of countless St. Patrick's Day dyed-in-the-wool rituals to commemorate the patron saint and his verdant green isle.

In pubs and restaurants around the world, people will sip – or chug – green beer, perhaps eat green pancakes and indulge in shamrock-themed sweets, all of which likely went viridescent thanks to a healthy shot of synthetic food dye made up of mysterious-sounding ingredients such as propylene glycol, FD&C Yellow 5 and Blue 1, and propylparaben (a preservative).

In a few weeks, the dye-it craze will soar again as parents help their children turn eggs every shade under the sun to entice the elusive Easter bunny.

Colour has always been linked to holidays – red at Christmas, orange at Halloween – but the dye craze that goes hand in hand with St. Patrick's Day and Easter inevitably sparks discourse among health and food experts who have long debated whether artificial colouring is bad for your health (some studies have suggested it causes hyperactivity in children – not officially proven) – and whether it's high time Health Canada follows in the footsteps of regulators in the United States and Britain and force manufacturers to list all dyes by name on food products.

In Canada, it's a topic that's been on the table since 2010 – with no definitive steps yet taken.

Currently, manufacturers are allowed to choose whether to declare food dye ingredients by name or simply use the generic term "colour." In 2014, Health Canada said it was too early to speculate on when the labelling change might take place.

Why is it still up in the air? Health Canada spokesman Sean Upton clarified last week that it has been "consulting with Canadians" on proposed amendments to food labelling that would eliminate the option of using the nebulous term "colour."

But he added, "Health Canada is continuing to review the comments received from Canadians and is assessing the next steps in the implementation of this important initiative."

In other words, wait and see.

In the meantime, all you St. Paddy's revellers, go out and don a green wig, silly leprechaun glasses and celebrate St. Patrick's Day with a pint of green beer – or two.

As the saying goes, what you don't know won't hurt you.


A homemade natural alternative to green food colouring

If your kids are clamouring to take green cupcakes to school but the thought of using food colouring leaves you uneasy, here's a homemade, all-natural alternative for whipping up a green feast, usable in everything from cupcakes to scrambled eggs.

Place two handfuls of spinach leaves into a small saucepan. Add water almost to the height of the spinach. Bring to boil over high heat, then reduce to medium and simmer for about 15 minutes, until water has reduced to about half. Cool. Pour spinach and water into a blender and blend until smooth. Store in refrigerator.

You need more of the natural food colouring to get the same colour punch that you get from a few drops of artificial food colouring, so adjust recipes accordingly, taking into account the added moisture.

– Gayle MacDonald

– Adapted from