Natural Colors Have a Bright and Colorful Future

As the organic and natural market continues to boom, innovative new approaches to natural colors ensure a bright and colorful future.

By Kathryn Trim

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The burgeoning interest in all things natural also means a higher interest in natural colors. The total U.S. color market is worth about $365 million, with natural colors now accounting for $250 million of that – literally double the sales of synthetic colors, according to a 2005 report by market research firm Business Communications Co., Norwalk, Conn. The report also states that while there is relatively no growth in synthetic colors, natural colorants are estimated to grow at a rate of 2.9 percent annually through 2009.

The truth is, colors sell – especially to kids. But parents are watching labels to avoid artificial colorants.
The truth is, colors sell – especially to kids. But parents are watching labels to avoid artificial colorants.

Today’s educated consumer has greater peace of mind when she sees something like “fruit and vegetable juice concentrate (for color)” on a label rather than a list that resembles the index from a chemistry text. “Consumers are reading more about synthetic chemicals in our food and the [perceived] health problems associated with them,” says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Assn. (www.organicconsumers.org), Finland, Minn. “There is a developing understanding that colors that are not natural should be avoided.”

To respond to this, food processors are busier than ever creating new natural products or reformulating existing products to have cleaner labels. “Before, it was just smaller companies that we sold these natural colors to, but now bigger companies such as Kraft, General Mills and Kellogg are going more natural,” says Jason Armao, director of applications at Wild Flavors Inc. (www.wildflavors.com), Erlanger, Ky. “What used to be a niche is now mainstream. It’s getting big and will continue to get bigger.”

In most cases, there is the option of no color at all. But the truth is, colors sell – especially to kids and young adults. In response to requests from parents, Annie’s Homegrown (www.annies.com), Napa, Calif., recently added the natural coloring annatto to its organic and all-natural Cheddar Mac for “kids who need to have orange cheese on their macaroni,” says Aimee Sands, director of marketing. “When customers think of cheddar cheese, they think of a rich orange color. So we wanted to make sure our product was in line with their vision.”

Instruments to measure color

It’s easy to understand why color is an important attribute for the food industry. Consumers rarely are allowed to taste food before they buy it. But they often get to see food products before purchase, and color is a key factor in their perception of a food’s freshness, ripeness and other attributes of quality.

“Food processors often are limited in their ability to adjust color in the final product. Because of this, they pay strict attention to the color of ingredients and to the changes that occur during each step of production,” says Hal Good, director of marketing services at HunterLab (www.hunterlab.com), Reston, Va. “Color measurement instruments are used to check ingredient color and to evaluate the efficiency of processes in obtaining or maintaining the desired product color.”

Hunter makes a number of color measurement products, including spectrophotometers and colorimeters, in bench-top, online and portable systems.

Konica Minolta (www.se.konicaminolta.us) also makes colorimeters that measure and compare the color of beverages, foods and other solids and liquids for quality control and other goals.

With natural colors, you give customers something that not only looks good, but they can feel better about. “We’ve heard over and over in focus groups that color is the first thing people notice about our product,” says Claire Bowles, assistant marketing director at Jones Soda Co. (www.jonessoda.com), Seattle. “These days, people are looking for a cleaner, more natural product. That’s why we came out with our ‘Naturals’ line, which uses added natural colors.

The color spectrum—synthetics to naturals

Currently, the FDA has no official definition of a “natural” product. However, the Sugar Assn. petitioned the FDA "to establish specific rules and regulations governing the definition of 'natural' before a 'natural' claim can be labeled on foods and beverages regulated by the FDA." This would define natural foods as foods that do not contain anything artificial or synthetic and/or foods or food ingredients that are not more than minimally processed.

There also is no real definition of “natural” for colorants, either. Instead, FDA classifies food-color additives as either “certified” or “exempt from certification.” The certified colors, or “synthetics,” include FD&C (food, drug and cosmetic) colors such as Red 40, Yellow 5, Blue 1 etc., and require on-site certification for the purity of each batch to ensure safety. Commonly known as “artificial” or “synthetic” colors, they are made from compounds such as coal tar-derived aniline. FDA requires these be listed by name on the ingredients list.

Other food or botanical-derived colors undergo further processing to make them more water-soluble, fat-soluble, stable or otherwise user-friendly, which may or may not involve synthetic chemicals. There also are several lab-synthesized colors created to be “nature identical” on a molecular level. These are exempt by the FDA and include some beta-carotene and lycopene analogs. To FDA, this entire grouping of colors is considered “exempt,” but in the food industry they are commonly referred to as “natural colors.”

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