Anthocyanins provide red to orange-red to blue shades. Betacyanins give red beets, red chard and some cactus fruit their brilliant red colors. Caramel from heated sugars yields beige to deep brown hues. Carotenoids, such as beta carotene and lycopene obtained from tomatoes, carrots, paprika, saffron, corn, palm oil, annatto bean and marigolds, supply rich yellow to orange to red colors. Chlorophylls from spinach and other plants yield green to olive green colors. Turmeric and even the B vitamin riboflavin can yield bright yellow.
Many natural colorants have gone unnoticed for decades, even though they've defined the look of certain modern foods. Few of us wonder why white milk yields orange cheese; the annatto bean, a naturally occurring colorant that comes from the seeds of a tropical fruit provides the color. The mustard we slather on hot dogs wouldn't be brilliant yellow without the tumeric. Colas are colored with caramel, a heat or enzymatic treated carbohydrate that also colors bakery products, gravies, vinegar, apple juice, beers, wines and whiskeys.
The world of caramel coloring is highly intricate, with four different classes of caramel colorants used for different applications. Developers at D.D. Williamson specialized in this world, before adding other colorants their palette. According to Campbell Barnum, D.D. Williamson's vice president of branding and market development, caramel accounts for 80 percent (by weight) of colorants added to foods. That's a global annual consumption of over 200,000 tons.
Getting the bugs out
One of the most fascinating of the natural colorants is carmine; a red colorant derived from cochineal insects -- small, flat, oval-shaped critters that live on cactus pads. The body of the insect produces a red pigment that was much valued by the Aztecs, Mayans and other peoples of Central and North America. The dye, later produced in Mexico, gained rapid popularity during the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Highly prized in Europe, it gave the British "Red Coats" their crimson color. Its popularity dropped sharply with appearance of synthetic red color. The market rebounded when many synthetic reds proved to be toxic, and because carmine was heat stable. But now there is another complication -- the bug factor.
"Carmine, though natural, has been a growing cause of concern because of reports of severe allergic reactions," says Simha. And some people just get squeamish when they learn of the dye's origin. "In response, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the FDA to either ban the colorant or require that its presence appear on food labels," adds Simha.
So Lycored contributes natural red to the palette with its Tomat-O-Red and LycoBeta colorants, which are used to color a wide variety of foods and beverages, including bakery, beverage, dairy, breakfast cereal, extruded snacks, powdered drinks and nutritional bars.
One also must consider the increasing demand for vegan and kosher products, which are not friendly to bugs.
Izze sparkling juices, from Izze Beverage Co. (www.izze.com), Boulder Colo., contain few ingredients; that's their appeal. "Since [nothing artificial] is what Izze is about, we look for natural ways to achieve the desired juice colors," says Drew Grumhaus, vice president of operations. "We sometimes add colors to our beverages for several reasons, including to offset natural color loss from exposure to things such as light or air, and to correct natural variations in the colors of our other ingredients. In other words, we use natural colors to make our beverages look as good as they taste."
For example, he says, Sparkling Grapefruit gets its pink hue from red cabbage extract. "The extract is a natural colorant and doesn't affect the flavor," he points out. "For Sparkling Clementine, we add beta carotene, which gives the juice a bright, refreshing orange color that you'd expect from a Clementine."
Though coloring foods "naturally," may seem at first glance to be simple, there are many things to consider when using exempt colors. "Regulations regarding colors vary from country to country, so first and foremost one must consider where the food or beverage item will be manufactured and distributed," says Armao. Other factors that influence color selection, according to Armao, are form (whether the application is liquid or dry, water or oil soluble), pH (which may affect color stability) and shelf life desired in the finished product.
Packaging will determine exposure to light and oxygen. The temperature of processing or storage can cause color degradation. Oxidizers, reducing agents, such as sulfur dioxide, as well as certain flavors and metal ions can cause color degradation over time. Even vitamin C in high levels can be harmful to some colors and beneficial to others. "Certain colors contribute flavor; it is important to consider this, so the flavor chemist can help balance out the contribution of flavor from the color," adds Armao.
Sometimes the desired final color of the product requires a blend of naturally occurring colorants. This adds another level of complication, as not all colors are compatible with one another, according to Stephen Lauro, president of ColorMaker Inc. (www.colormaker.com), Anaheim, Calif. Colormaker, affiliated with D.D. Williamson, specializes in blending colors for a variety of applications.
Naturally occurring colorants also can be more expensive than the synthetic varieties. Yet the rewards can far outweigh the difficulties, and not only because of the clean labels.
"Coloring foods naturally is about 70 percent art and 30 percent science," says Lauro. "But it's an art and science that health-conscious consumers will increasingly demand as they continue to scrutinize labels."
Many of the naturally derived materials that we use as coloring agents are potentially beneficial in other ways. While they may not be used in large enough quantities to enable a health claim, they certainly can enhance ingredient statements.
"Whether it is a carotenoid color such as beta carotene, lycopene, annatto, or lutein, anthocyanin extracts from a variety of fruits and vegetables, curcumin from turmeric rhizomes or many other materials, we find a mountain of reports of potential health benefits," says Winston Boyd technical director of Food Ingredient Solutions LLC (www.foodcolor.com), New York.
"Do food companies formulate with natural colorants to take advantage of these potential benefits? No. The main reason is the dosage has to be large enough to provide an immediate effect. At the levels colorants are normally included in food formulations, no effect can be claimed.
"But there's something else to consider," continues Boyd. "Most processing diminishes the micronutrient load of the food, as well as the natural color. Adding natural colorants instead of synthetics is a means of adding back some of the micronutrients lost in processing."
Or as D.D. Williamson's Lawson observes: "While the individual antioxidants in a single serving of a food with natural colorants may be small, the overall impact of consuming these antioxidants on a regular basis could be quite significant."