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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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 (, 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. (, 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 (, 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 (, 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.”

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