Color makes a powerful statement about food. The dazzling colors of ripe fruits and vegetables act as beacons, signifying that flavor, aroma and nutrition are at their peaks. The latest trend in nutrition is to "eat a rainbow," and thus assure a wide spectrum of dietary vitamins, minerals and the colorful phytochemicals that act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer agents.
One could argue that survival instinct underlies "eye appeal," the culinary art of meeting our color expectations of food. And that instinct is a bit picky; we tend to shun inappropriate colors that may indicate food is spoiled or tainted.
"Color is the first thing a consumer may consider when purchasing a food or beverage item," says Jason Armao, director-colors at Wild Flavors Inc. (www.wildflavors.com), Erlanger, Ky. "Appearance is extremely important to the consumer's perception of a product. Some factors color influences include flavor, identity, quality, consistency, appeal, and freshness.
"When creating a product, color is without a doubt one of the most important factors to its success," he continues. "Yet, when a developer designs a product, it tends to be the last thing considered."
The laws of color
The Romans recognized the value of giving food eye appeal. They took advantage of spices such as saffron along with the pigments in berries, pomegranates, grapes, carrots, beets and spinach to make common foods more appetizing. Early in this country, copper carbonate, gold and silver leaf and other ores and minerals added color and often poison to food. So, in 1906, the U.S. established the Food and Drug Act, a voluntary certification program that regulated the addition of colors to foods.
The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act of 1938 made certification mandatory and regulated what color enhancers could be added to foods, drugs and cosmetics. The year 1960 saw the creation of the FDA's list of approved color additives. Then the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 required that color additives be listed in the ingredient statement. Today, all new color additives must be tested and proved safe. Even then, the FDA may restrict their use to certain types of foods.
"The FDA defines two types of color additives: certified and exempt from certification," explains Margaret Lawson, vice president-science and innovation at D.D. Williamson and Co. (www.caramelcolor.com), Louisville, Ky. "We often use the terms 'synthetic' and 'natural' in common language, but this is not the regulatory language of the FDA.
"The certified colors (FD&C Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5, Blue No. 1, etc.) require on-site certification for the purity of each batch. Certified color additives are commonly known as 'artificial' or 'synthetic' colors. However, colors such as annatto extract, turmeric, elderberry color concentrate, and caramel color are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and therefore do not require certification," continues Lawson.
Armao further clarifies the FDA position: "According to U.S. color additive regulations, there is really no such thing as a natural color unless for example you are using elderberry juice concentrate to enhance the color of elderberry jelly. If you were using elderberry juice concentrate to color strawberry jelly, the color would now be considered artificial since the elderberry juice concentrate is not inherent to the strawberry.
"Typically, the preference when labeling exempt colors is to call out the color by name," Armao continues. "For example, if using black carrot juice concentrate to color a beverage, the label would read 'black carrot juice concentrate (color).' "
Color me natural
The synthetic palette allows the culinary artist to match just about any desired color. To a great degree, the food is an inert canvas with respect to synthetic colors. Final colors will be stable, relatively inexpensive and have a long shelf.
There's only one problem: Increasingly health-conscious consumers want the synthetics out. "Up until the recent past, most consumers completely accepted the use of synthetic color additives," says Armao. "Today, the consumer has become more educated when purchasing foods and beverages. Many consumers scrutinize product labels looking to make healthier choices. As a result, the trend has been to utilize colors coming from natural sources in an effort to keep a 'clean label.' Growth of retailers that market natural foods or organic foods also has fueled the consumption of foods containing colors from natural sources."
Liat Simha of Lycored Corp. (www.lycored.com), Orange N.J., notes, "Consumers are demanding a clean label -- one devoid of listings of artificial ingredients -- and this has manufacturers looking away from synthetic colorants." And that means toward the natural palette, which includes anthocyanins, derived from apples, berries, grapes, red cabbage, sweet potatoes and flowers, such as roses and hibiscus.