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.”

On the other end of the spectrum are healthful fruit and vegetable concentrates made primarily through water extraction. Although most “exempt” colors are made from natural sources, the FDA still sees them as additives, so they must be noted on ingredient lists generically as “color added,” or named -- for example “annatto (for color)” or “colored with annatto.” The only natural coloring excluded from such labeling is the color from the product itself – for example, using strawberry juice to color strawberry ice cream pink.

Processors can choose to be as specific as they like. “After getting a billion calls asking us what ‘black carrots’ were, we changed our labels to just simply read ‘vegetable juice concentrate (for color).’ We get a lot fewer calls now,” explains Brenda Goldblatt, marketing communications manager for Fuze Beverage (www.fuzebev.com), Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

“In the typical product development cycle, R&D time is compressed in favor of quick response to market demand — and predictable ingredient behavior is a benefit” says Winston Boyd, technical director of Food Ingredient Solutions Inc. (www.foodcolor.com), Blauvelt, N.Y. “Where color is concerned, synthetics are nice — they behave in a predictable fashion. With natural colorants, there’s an art to working them successfully. You need to understand both the chemistry of the color preparation and the food science of the matrix. The more experience you add to the mix, the better able you are to solve application problems.”

Food Ingredient Solutions is a global supplier of food ingredients, including natural colorant systems for hundreds of products and companies. “Many processors look at coloration last in the formulating process, as a finishing touch after the majority of the processing is worked out. We approach a color challenge from the earliest possible point in product development," says Boyd. "Finding a solution may even involve going back to the color’s raw material source and manipulating the extraction process to obtain a finished color product designed to address a performance requirement.”

"Sometimes,” Boyd continues, "you can take an extract, a semi-finished material or a concentrate and blend it with functional ingredients to modify performance. The key is in understanding enough of the whole processing picture to balance the variables toward achieving the specific need."

Go all the way: organic

The gold standard in natural foods is green — the green USDA Certified Organic seal, that is. Organic certification has three levels of certification: “100 Percent Certified Organic;” “Certified Organic” which requires that 95 percent of the product be organically produced; and “Contains Organic Ingredients” in which 70 percent of the ingredients must be organic.

Since most colorants are used in such low doses — typically .01 to .5 percent — many non-organically grown natural colors still can slide into the last two certifications and are termed “organic compliant.” Because of this, many color manufacturers don’t feel the need to switch to organic, thus there are few certified-organic colors out there.

Back-up coloring
One thing that could change the way colors are regulated is the National Organic Standards Board’s (NOSB) “Sunset Review,” which is scheduled to take place for “colors, non-synthetic only” in 2007. Periodically, the NOSB reviews the regulations and adds or drops items from their list based on petitions and evidence. With this in mind, many color makers suggest those formulating organic products have a back up plan just in case the color is denied by the NOSB. The more natural the color is, the safer it will be.

To fit under what’s called the “95/5 rule,” the 5 percent of non-organic ingredients must be on the USDA National Organic Program’s list of allowed substances and not on its list of prohibited substances. The color must not be produced by chemical process or changed from naturally occurring form unless done so via a naturally occurring processes. It may not contain synthetic ingredients, except those allowed by CFR205.605. The processor also must show a good faith effort to find a commercially available organic alternative.

Currently, natural colors are on the national list of allowed substances simply stated as “colors, non-synthetic sources only.” “Some natural colors that undergo chemical processing may not qualify, so before a processor formulates any organic product, it’s best to know the organic standards, form an organic-processing plan, then have it reviewed by a USDA certifier early in the development stages,” says Joan Schaffer, USDA representative.

How now, brown?

Organic caramel coloring was launched by several companies this year in response to client requests. “There is very high interest in this product,” says Owen Parker, vice president of R&D for D.D. Williamson (www.ddwilliamson.com), Louisville, Ky. “Many companies trying to meet the 95/5 rule couldn’t get to the next level without changing something. Since caramel color is often used at higher doses than most colors, an organic caramel gives them a certified option.”

D.D. Williamson, the largest caramel color manufacturer in the world, created two certified organic caramel colors – one from organic sugar cane and one from organic rice. “With allergies being such a concern these days, rice is one of the safest options,” says Parker.

“There are no real limitations to caramel color,” says Brian Sethness, of Sethness Caramel Color (www.sethness.com), Lincolnwood, Ill. The company also launched an organic sugar cane-based caramel color this year. “You can bake it, retort it, extrude it and the caramel color will remain. It costs a little more than the typical product, but people are willing to pay more for organic.”

Due to certain chemical processes, certified-organic caramel colors currently are available only in lighter shades, requiring more colorant to reach deeper shades.

Seeing red

Note to Plant Ops

Knowing how to work with natural colors doesn’t just come, well, naturally. It takes a little creativity and a lot of know-how. Natural color makers will help you find a solution, but it you can speed things along by knowing these things about your product.

  • Does the process involve heat? If so, what is the temperature and the length of time the color will be exposed? Some colors can withstand high heats, but only for short periods of time. It usually is better to add the colorant at the last stage of the process, if possible.
  • What is the storage temperature? Colorants have different shelf lives depending on whether they are refrigerated or not.
  • How is the product packaged? This determines how much light the product will be exposed to. Packaging can help prevent oxidation, which can deteriorate colors.
  • What is the pH? This can affect shade and solubility of certain natural colors.
  • Do the products contain oxidizers or bleaching agents, such as chlorine or hypochlorites?
  • Do the products contain reducing agents such as ascorbic acid, sulfur dioxide, invert sugars or metal ions?
  • What is the targeted product’s shelf life? Different colorants are recommended for products such as perishable refrigerated dairy products versus shelf-stable, non-refrigerated beverages.
  • Where do you want to market your product? Color regulations vary by country. Color regulations can also vary by target market (for example organic or offer store requirements).

One of the most talked about colors in the industry right now is carmine. Carmine extract has been used since the 1900s as a food colorant for everything from hot dogs to maraschino cherries. However, these days you could say the color is really “bugging” people – literally.

This bright red color is extracted from the cochineal beetle and has been linked to several cases of anaphylactic shock reported to the FDA. Some groups are suggesting FDA ban carmine altogether, or at least clearly label it as cochineal beetle extract so vegetarians or people with allergies can avoid it.
FDA is reviewing carmine/cochineal, but at this time is proposing to require products containing the extract to list it by name. Currently, the ingredient only requires the vague “color added” or “artificial colors” designations.

“This is not a major allergen, but there are reports out there. By at least requiring label declaration, those who want to avoid it can,” says Mical Honigfort, an FDA representative.

Carmine has generated a lot of attention with consumers and processors. “With the rise in awareness, and new labeling laws, many processors may not want to put something thought of by the public as ‘bug juice’ on the label. Other than that, carmine is a well-established product that’s worked well in many applications, with excellent stability,” says Stefan Hake, CEO of GNT Group (www.gnt-group.com), Tarrytown, N.Y.

Carminic acid is one of the most light- and heat-stable of all the natural colorants and is even more stable than many synthetic food colors, so replacing it is not an easy task. “There just is no alternative that is as stable as carmine. It may be the only natural option for some products,” says Armao of Wild Flavors.

In the beverage industry, there has been a strong interest for a natural color to replace Red 40. Food Ingredient Solutions recently introduced its Vegetable Juice Color 6003, a naturally derived, kosher colorant stable under typical application conditions. The company also is rolling out a line of naturally derived pigments to replace synthetic lakes, working with the FDA to expand permitted uses of chlorophyllin as a food colorant and will soon release a new elderberry red with substantially improved stability.

LycoRed Corp. (www.lycored.com), Fairfield, N.J., makes TomatORed, a natural lycopene extract recently approved for use as a color by the FDA this year. The extract is highly stable under a wide range of temperatures, processing conditions and pH shifts. It’s additive-free and available as a liquid dispersion or a cold-water dispersible powder.

"TomatORed is very stable and easy to use. It also has a very clean label and is both kosher and vegetarian," says Rodger Jonas, national business development manager for PL Thomas (www.plthomas.com), Morristown, N.J., the U.S. distributor for LycoRed. "There also are health benefits associated with Iycopene, such as support for cardiovascular health and protection from cell damage," Jonas adds.

Anthocyanins also produce a natural red — as well as a range of pinks and purples. But they are pH-sensitive and usually only water-soluble. Wild Flavors recently released its NET (Nano Encapsulation Technology) Colors Anthocyanin, an oil-soluble, kosher red alternative to carmine for use in cocoa butter-based coatings, chocolates and fat fillings.

Other popular anthocyanin colorant sources include elderberry, red cabbage, black carrots and grapes. Newer to the scene is the purple sweet potato, which has a color similar to red cabbage but a much cleaner aroma and taste.

Blues, yellows and oranges

For years, this color has given the natural coloring industry a case of the blues. However, several companies have developed natural blue options for processors. ColorMaker Inc. (www.colormaker.com), Anaheim, Calif., developed an organic-compliant, oil-dispersible blue that works well in cocoa butter, buttercreams and dairy products of pH 5.5 to 6 or higher. “There are no preservatives because we use a vegetable-based emulsifier instead of a synthetic version, such as the commonly used polysorbate. We are able to fit into the 95/5 rule,” says Stephan Lauro, general manager of ColorMaker.

RFI Ingredients (www.rfiingredients.com), Blauvelt, N.Y., also is touting a new anthocyanin-based blue available in both water-soluble and oil-dispersible forms. It gives a sky-blue shade comparable to synthetic blue but, as with all other blues, it is only suitable for applications with high pH. The downside is, because it has includes a preservative it’s not organic compliant.

And what do you get when you mix blue and yellow? Green. “You have to have a stable blue to get a good green, and now we have it. It’s perfect for natural or organic green-colored white chocolate or naturally colored green tea ice cream,” says Lauro. The next big blue breakthrough to hope for in the future: a water-soluble, low pH-stable, natural blue. “This is the Holy Grail of all natural colors,” he adds.

Another issue troubling natural color makers is creating a truly water-soluble yellow or orange shade. RFI’s’ Clear-Col and Wild’s NET-turmeric are two solutions.

“The options in this color range are mostly naturally oil-soluble colorants, such as carotene and paprika. Although there are water-dispersible forms available, they can give beverage applications undesirable cloudiness,” says Thanyaporn Siriwoharn, RFI product development manager. “Using microemulsion technology, we can offer bright color shades from lemon to orange and green with excellent clarity in application.”

According to Siriwoharn, the product is stable in heat, light and acidic conditions. However, it contains an antioxidant that is not organic-compliant.

There are several choices for fat-soluble yellows, including vitamin A-rich beta-carotene. Also, Wild Flavors and DSM Nutrition Products (www.nutraaccess.com), Parsippany, N.J., offer natural versions derived from fungi plus several lab-synthesized “nature identical” versions.

One of the most popular natural yellows is annatto, which is available in water-soluble and fat-soluble forms. “Annato offers a cost-effective choice primarily because the tropical seeds they’re made from contain a color content as high as 4 to 5 percent, while most fruit and vegetable sources contain only 1 percent or less,” says Niel Dinesen, senior advisor at D.D. Williamson.

D.D. Williamson also developed an annatto powder colorant as an alternative comparative to synthetics. It’s shelf-stable over several years. Although there are vegetable oil-extracted versions of annatto, one of the primary forms of extraction uses potassium or sodium chloride (salt).

While this is a synthetic exception permitted under the organic standards list, it still is considered a chemical agent. Organic processors desiring a clean label are using carrot and pumpkin juice concentrates, according to Hake of GNT.

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