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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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 (, 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. (, 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 (, 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. (, 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 (, 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 (, 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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