My first encounter with “unicorn food” came by way of a latte. It was bright blue — unnaturally so — and topped with sprinkles and bits of lavender. It looked like a toothache in a cup, but the shade was the result of a powder called Blue Majik (derived from blue-green algae), not food coloring. The drink is being served at The End, a coffee and juice shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that offers a menu of rainbow-hued yet healthy “unicorn” lattes made with powdered herbs or supplements. It’s all very “don’t worry, be happy” (their hot chocolate is spiked with CBD oil aka cannabinoid oil).
Unicorn foods are beginning to pop up at cafes across NYC and are becoming a mainstay of all sorts of wellness Instagram presences (even Starbucks is getting on board, a sign of peak trend), but I first started seeing them on the feed of journalist, food lover and former Eater LA editor Kat Odell, who is in the process of penning a cookbook titled — what else — Unicorn Food. “[It is] inspired by living in LA and then moving to New York,” she told me over the phone. “That was three years ago. I moved cross-country and I didn’t have access to all the fresh ingredients and clean eats of LA. So I started making all this stuff I couldn’t find for myself.” One of her first products was a spirulina-cardamom almond milk. “Almond milk has a more subtle flavor, rather than cashew, so it’s like a blank canvas,” she says. Further experiments included goji-berry powder, turmeric, pine nuts and rose petals.
“Blue Majik is really fun, but that’s getting very popular right now,” she says. “Dehydrated beet, hibiscus and pitaya are great for color. You get a really pretty green color with spinach, and it doesn’t add much flavor. My kitchen is embarrassing when people come over!”
Lisa Frank-esque health foods sit perfectly at the crossroads of all things photo-documentable and our current fascination with healthy living. No surprise, then, that this shit is everywhere. According to Laurie Pressman, the VP of the Pantone Color Institute, there’s a reason why we’re craving rainbow brights right now. “Bright shades are happy – they make us smile,” she says. “These colors in foods…imply a sense of fun and levity. Engaging and inviting, they bring us back to a time when things were simpler and playfully innocent.” So, sort of like the culinary interpretation of adult coloring books.
“These trends may start in one area of the world but with the prevalence of social media, [they] quickly become international,” says Pressman. It’s true — this is food basically tailor-made for sharing online. At The Good Sort, a new cafe in Chinatown, the iced lattes and hummus toast are both shockingly pink (beets). Another iced drink looks like a Grateful Dead tie-dye tee come to life; it’s a matcha-turmeric-beet combo.
Therein lies the appeal of unicorn food: There’s something striking about the irony of such synthetic-looking colors matched with their actual, healthful origins. It’s simple and playful. “Here’s to feeling good all the time,” cheers The Good Sort’s menu. I might be the most cynical person in the room most of the time, but I ordered myself one of those iced rainbow lattes and I fucking enjoyed it. Drank it down in a few minutes. I didn’t Instagram it, though. Missed opportunity.