How do you know if gel food coloring is bad?

Food coloring is an essential ingredient in baking, cooking, and food decorating. While liquid food coloring tends to last quite a long time, gel food coloring has a shorter shelf life. Here are some tips on how to tell if your gel food coloring has gone bad.

Check the Expiration Date

Like any food product, gel food coloring contains ingredients that can eventually go bad. The easiest way to tell if your gel coloring is still okay to use is to check the expiration date printed on the packaging. Gel food coloring typically lasts for 1-2 years unopened. Once opened, it will stay fresh for 9-12 months.

If your gel food coloring is past its printed expiration date, it’s best to throw it out and buy a new bottle. The expired product may not be as vibrant or give you the desired color when added to frosting, candies, or baked goods. Using old gel coloring can also affect the taste and quality of what you are making.

Inspect the Texture

The texture of gel food coloring can be an indicator that it has gone off. Fresh gel coloring should have a smooth, even consistency. It should be easy to stir and incorporate into whatever you are making.

Over time, gel food coloring can start to separate, become more liquidy, and lose its jello-like texture. If your gel coloring looks thinner and more watery than usual, it has likely expired. Clumping, crustiness, and dry spots are also signs that the coloring is past its prime.

Look at the Color

The vibrancy of the color is another way to determine if gel food coloring has spoiled. Good quality, non-expired gel coloring will provide bold, deep hues. As gel food coloring starts to go bad, you may notice the color looks faded, dull or darker than normal.

Test a small amount of the gel coloring on a white surface, like a paper towel or plate. If the color seems less pigmented than usual, consider buying a fresh bottle.

Give it a Sniff

Fresh, non-expired gel food coloring should not really have any discernible smell. It may have a slightly chemical scent, but there should not be any offensive odors.

If your gel food coloring has developed a foul, rotten, or chemically harsh smell, it has likely spoiled and should be discarded. Any changes in the expected mild smell can indicate that bacteria is growing and the product is past its prime.

Watch How It Mixes

To further test if your gel food coloring is still good, try mixing a small amount into frosting, cake batter, or icing. Fresh gel coloring will easily and smoothly blend into the food.

If the gel coloring doesn’t seem to incorporate well, such as specks remaining or a streaky appearance, it’s a sign that the coloring has expired. Spoiled coloring may also thin out or break down food mixtures rather than evenly tinting them.

Consider How It’s Been Stored

How you store gel food coloring can impact how long it stays fresh. Keeping bottles tightly sealed and storing them in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight gives them the longest shelf life.

If your gel food coloring has been stored for months at room temperature or in hot conditions, it may be more prone to spoilage. Improper storage that exposes it to humidity can also cause the coloring to degrade faster.

Watch for Mold

Like many food products, spoiled gel coloring may develop mold. Check the bottle and the inside of the lid carefully. If you see any mold or green/black spots, the gel coloring has gone bad.

Discard the bottle immediately and sterilize any surfaces it touched. Consuming moldy food coloring could cause health issues.


With its more limited shelf life, gel food coloring requires closer monitoring than liquid varieties. But a few quick checks of the expiration date, texture, smell, and color vibrancy can clue you in on whether it’s still useable. Always store gel coloring properly to get the most out of each bottle you buy. Toss bottles that are past their prime so your baked goods, candies, and frostings get the bright, vivid colors you expect.

How to Store Gel Food Coloring

To get the longest lasting use out of your gel food coloring, be mindful of how you store it. Here are some tips for maximizing its shelf life:

  • Keep gel food coloring in a cool, dry place. Avoid storage in places like the refrigerator door that experience temperature fluctuations.
  • Make sure the bottle is tightly sealed when not in use to keep out moisture and air.
  • Store gel food coloring away from direct sunlight, which can cause fading over time.
  • Once opened, write the date on the bottle so you know when you first used it.
  • Keep opened bottles sealed in a resealable plastic bag if storing for a long period.
  • Don’t store gel coloring bottles close to anything with a strong odor. It can absorb unpleasant smells.

Proper storage extends the shelf life of unopened gel food coloring to 1-2 years. Once opened, gel coloring will stay fresh for 9-12 months if stored correctly.

How to Tell When Liquid Food Coloring Goes Bad

Liquid food coloring tends to keep longer than the gel variety. But it can still degrade in quality and become unusable. Here’s how to know if your liquid food coloring is past its prime:

  • Check the expiration date – Unopened bottles last 2-3 years. Opened bottles are good for 18-24 months.
  • Inspect the consistency – It should flow easily. Thick, syrupy liquid can mean it’s gone bad.
  • Look at the color – Faded or darker coloring indicates spoilage.
  • Give it a sniff test – Liquid coloring slowly loses its dye smell over time. Rancid odors mean toss it.
  • See how it mixes – Bad liquid coloring will tint unevenly and bleed from foods.

With proper storage, liquid food coloring can retain its coloring power for baking, frosting, and more for years past its bottling date.

What Happens If You Use Expired Food Coloring

You don’t want to use food coloring that has expired, as it can impact the quality and taste of foods it’s mixed into. Here’s what can happen if old food coloring is used:

  • The color may appear faded, dull, or change the intended hue.
  • Off smells and flavors can be imparted.
  • The texture of frostings and candies may be affected.
  • Spoiled liquid coloring may bleed, resulting in unsightly baked goods.
  • Old gel coloring could leave streaks rather than evenly tinting foods.

At best, using expired food coloring will provide lackluster results. At worst, it could ruin recipes and leave a bad taste in food. When in doubt, it’s best to play it safe and use a fresh, non-expired product.

Does Food Coloring Go Bad When Mixed into Icing or Frosting?

Food coloring that has been incorporated into homemade icing or frosting can eventually go bad. However, the food coloring alone does not spoil the icing – it’s other ingredients that can go off over time.

Icing and frosting both contain perishable dairy products like butter, cream cheese, and milk. These can cause the mixtures to spoil after several weeks in the fridge. The high sugar content also makes icing prone to mold if left too long.

Properly stored icing lasts about 2-3 weeks refrigerated. Be on the lookout for signs of spoilage like mold, off-smells, and changes in texture. Avoid eating icing that is older than this timeframe, even if the color still appears bright.

Commercial canned icing lasts 1-2 months unopened. Once opened, it stays good for 3-4 weeks in the fridge. Discard any with mold or that smells unpleasant. Re-tinted icing also shortens shelf life.

How Long Does Homemade Icing Last?

The shelf life of homemade icing depends largely on how it is stored:

  • Refrigerated – Stays fresh 2-3 weeks in airtight container.
  • Frozen – Keeps 6-8 months if tightly wrapped.
  • Room temperature – Lasts 3-5 days maximum.

Never leave icing out more than a couple hours, as perishable dairy ingredients can quickly spoil. For longest freshness, keep refrigerated.

Signs that refrigerated icing has gone bad include mold growth, watery consistency, and unpleasant sour smell. Discard at first sight of any spoilage.

Does Gel Food Coloring Need to Be Refrigerated?

Unlike icing, gel food coloring does not require refrigeration after opening. The low moisture content allows gel coloring to remain stable at room temperature.

For optimum freshness, do store gel coloring in a cool, dry place away from heat and light. But the refrigerator is too humid an environment for opened gel coloring bottles.

Refrigerating gel food coloring can cause moisture buildup inside the bottle. This leads to premature spoilage from dilution, clumping, and possible mold growth.

As long as the bottle is tightly sealed, gel coloring will retain its coloring power for up to 1 year stored at normal room temperature. Just keep it in a cabinet away from hot spots like the stove.

Does Food Coloring Have an Indefinite Shelf Life?

No, food coloring does eventually expire and go bad. Both liquid and gel food colorings have a limited shelf life:

  • Unopened liquid coloring lasts 2-3 years.
  • Unopened gel coloring lasts 1-2 years.
  • Once opened, liquid and gel varieties last roughly 1 year.

Improper storage like excessive heat exposure can shorten these timeframes. And food coloring that has spoiled should not be used in edible recipes.

While food coloring lasts quite a while, its coloring properties do slowly degrade over time. Old bottles often appear faded compared to a fresh product.

For best results in recipes, use food coloring before its expiration date. Properly stored, unopened bottles typically retain optimum vibrancy for at least a couple years.

Can You Use Food Coloring After the Expiration Date?

You can use food coloring past its printed expiration date, but there is some risk involved. The main concern with expired food coloring is a loss of quality.

Old food coloring may appear more faded or alter the intended color. For example, expired blue coloring could look more dull purple. Expired coloring also tends to not mix as evenly into frostings and batters.

Smell the expired coloring before use – rancid odors mean it should be discarded. As long as it appears vibrant and does not smell off, you can likely still use it.

If the color looks quite faded, you may need to use more of it to achieve the right hue. But the taste and performance may be affected. For best results, stick to unexpired coloring whenever possible.

How Long Does Food Coloring Last After Opening?

Once opened, the shelf life of liquid and gel food coloring decreases but the products remain usable for a extended period if stored properly:

  • Liquid food coloring – Lasts 18-24 months after opening.
  • Gel food coloring – Lasts 9-12 months after opening.

Exposure to air and humidity reduces how long opened food coloring stays fresh. Always seal bottles tightly after each use.

Store opened food coloring in a cool, dry cabinet away from light. Refrigeration is not needed and can encourage spoilage.

If stored properly, opened food coloring retains its coloring power with minimal fading for 1-2 years past the bottling date.

How to Revive Gel Food Coloring

If your gel food coloring has started to fade or go bad, there are a few tricks to try to revive it:

  • Mix in a pinch of salt to boost vibrancy.
  • Add a drop of glycerin to loosen up thickened gel.
  • Stir in a tiny amount of white vinegar to stabilize color.
  • Combine with just-squeezed lemon juice to brighten hue.

Be careful not to thin out the gel too much. Test revived coloring on a paper towel before adding to recipes.

For best results, limit revival methods to unexpired gel coloring that just needs a pick-me-up. Don’t attempt to revive gels that are moldy or more than 2 years old.

What Is the Shelf Life of Food Coloring in Frosting?

The shelf life of food coloring mixed into homemade frosting is about 2-3 weeks refrigerated. The food coloring alone won’t spoil the frosting in this timeframe – it’s the dairy ingredients that can go bad.

Signs of spoiled frosting include:

  • Mold growth
  • Watery or curdled texture
  • Sour or unpleasant smell
  • Odd taste

Discard any frosting displaying these signs of spoilage, even if the color still looks bright. Don’t eat frosted baked goods if the frosting itself has gone bad.

For maximum freshness, store frosted cakes and cupcakes in the fridge and allow frosting to come to room temperature before serving.

Can You Freeze Food Coloring?

Yes, you can safely freeze liquid or gel food coloring to extend its shelf life. Freezing is a good long-term storage method for food coloring.

To help prevent freezing and thawing cycles from degrading the coloring over time:

  • Place bottles in freezer bags or airtight containers.
  • Squeeze out excess air before sealing.
  • Lay bottles on their sides to prevent ink pooling.
  • Avoid refreezing any thawed coloring.

Properly frozen food coloring keeps its coloring power for 6-8 months past the expiration date. Thaw overnight in the fridge before using.


Monitoring for changes in the expiration date, appearance, smell, and performance of your gel and liquid food coloring gives you clues on whether it’s still fresh. Always store unopened and opened bottles correctly to maximize shelf life. While usable past its expiration, the quality and performance of old food coloring may suffer. For vibrant results in recipes and decorating, stick to unexpired products whenever possible.

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