The main part of the first impression made by a food or beverage is its color. If the color is off, the taste and overall quality of the product will be substandard. That awareness has guided the coloring of foods for decades.
Now health-conscious consumers are taking the more-than-skin-deep part very seriously. They want appropriate color, but they want it “natural.” Consumers are concerned about the foods and beverages they consume and how it affects their health and the health of their children.
“Foods and beverages are coming under fire for calories, preservatives, artificial additives [even] excessive packaging materials,” says Doug Edmonson, director of marketing and technology for Sensient Technologies, St. Louis.
Food colorings especially have been subjected to increased scrutiny. After decades of controversy, a study published last year in the British medical journal Lancet concluded with greater conviction that artificial colors and additives could “negatively influence the behavior of children suffering from hyperactivity and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Note to Plant Ops
“Such news makes consumers choose food with an ever more critical eye,” says Jeannette O'Brien, senior manager at GNT USA Inc. (www.gnt-group.com), Tarrytown, N.Y. GNT is a global producer of natural (fruit- and vegetable-derived) colors. “The trend for natural foods will undoubtedly become even more important in future years, and consumers increasingly are requesting information about the ingredients and additives in the foods they buy,” adds O’Brien.
Not-so intuitive regulations
There is no such thing as “natural color,” according to the FDA’s current set of food colorant regulations, found in Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), parts 70-82. There are likewise no regulatory categories corresponding to “synthetic” or “artificial.”
“One of the peculiarities of the U.S. regulatory landscape is there are only two categories of food colorant: certified and exempt from certification,” says food ingredient specialist Winston Boyd. “Since colorants are considered additives and not ingredients, they’re not considered ‘natural’ to the foods they are in.”
This is not the case if one chooses, for instance, to color strawberry preserves with strawberry juice, or pickled beets with beet juice, Boyd adds. In these cases the color is considered “natural” to the system and the products may thus be labeled “naturally colored.” However, using beet juice to color strawberry flavored yogurt is to use an additive that is not natural to the food, so this yogurt is not “naturally colored.”
FDA lists all permitted colorants in 21 CFR, parts 73 and 74. There are a total of seven certified food colorants, all synthetic: FD&C (Food Drug and Cosmetics) red dyes No. 40 and 3; FD&C yellow dyes No. 40, 5 and 6; blue dyes No. 1 and 2; and green No. 3).
“The exempt category includes the colorants most food technologists have come to accept as natural, such as annatto, turmeric, paprika and various fruit and vegetable juices,” explains Boyd. “This category also includes notable synthetic colors such as titanium dioxide. Therefore, it’s not sufficient to refer to ‘exempt colorants’ when one means naturally derived colorants. But the use of the term ‘natural’ persists as being most descriptive.”
“There are several additional benefits for using colorants to protect food. For example, caramel color in a beverage emulsion helps to protect flavors from light degradation,” says Jody Rener-Nantz, food science chemist for D.D. Williamson & Co. (www.naturalcolors.com), Louisville, Ky.
Taking a page from nature’s book on guarding colors, Naturex Inc. (www.naturex.com), South Hackensack, N.J., created ColorEnhance, a water-soluble rosemary extract that increases the stability and enhances the color of products containing anthocyanins. “Co-pigmentation is a loose molecular association of colored anthocyanin pigments with nearly colorless molecules to produce an intensified and enhanced color,” says Antoine Dauby, marketing manager for Naturex. “It’s what occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables and flowers containing anthocyanin pigments. ColorEnhance deepens the hue of the natural color and develops a tea like note allowing its use in many applications.”
Another challenge to the natural color palette is to find products that act like “lakes,” synthetics best suited for applications with insufficient moisture to dissolve dyes. There are two forms of FD&C color additives: the dye and the lake. The dye is a color additive itself. A lake is the dye form attached to an aluminum or calcium substrate to make it insoluble.
“The only natural pigments currently available are carmine (red) and titanium dioxide (white/opacifier),” says Jeff Greaves, founder and manager of Food Ingredient Solutions LLC (www.foodcolor.com), Teterboro, N.J. “Carmine is a very good color, but presents some issues in natural applications, as it is insect-derived and an allergen. Also, carmine is considered unkosher by most rabbinical organizations. Other natural colors do not provide opacity or an even coating.”
Food Ingredient Solutions created a new line of patent-pending natural pigments that behave like FD&C lakes. “Our natural pigments provide even coating at reasonable use rates for tablets, compound coatings, panned candies and seasoning blends,” he adds.
ICL Performance Products LP (www.icl-perfproductslp.com), St. Louis, doesn’t make colors, but the company does make many of the applications of those colors more effective. “Generally, in beverage applications where natural or synthetic colors are used, ascorbic acid is added to help stabilize the color system. Over time, hydrogen peroxide can form in this type of system,” says Barbara Heidolph, principal, food phosphates at ICL. “The hydrogen peroxide that forms causes loss of color. Phosphates are used to help stabilize ascorbic acid so that hydrogen peroxide does not form.”
The primary function of the phosphate is to immobilize cations that can affect ascorbic stability. “Another function for phosphates, with regards to color stabilization in beverages, is pH control,” continues Heidolph. Colors are sensitive to pH and can emit different shades or completely different colors if the pH is not controlled. She says phosphate salts are excellent buffering agents; they control the pH at a specific target range. For beverages, where the sodium level is a concern, Benephos provides equivalent functionality with more than a 70 percent reduction in sodium contribution.
In baked goods, the pH will impact the appearance of the final product’s color as well. “For example, if you wanted to formulate a vanilla wafer cookie that was colored green, you would want to use acidic phosphates to cause the final pH to be lower,” says Heidolph. “If you added the green color to the normal formulation, it would produce a ‘dirty’ color that is not as bright.”
For most leading ingredient providers, inventories of naturally derived colorants read like a health nut’s shopping list: beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, anthocyanins, flavanoid compounds from grape skin, blueberry and bilberry, along with turmeric – all are powerful antioxidant or anti-inflammatory compounds. That’s because most pigments in plants are there to provide protection from the harmful effects oxygen and ultraviolet radiation.
Lycored Ltd. (www.lycored.com), Orange, N.J., boasts a color portfolio that addresses this trend toward colorants as healthful ingredients. The company pioneered development of lycopene, the red color from tomatoes. Lycored also provides orange beta-carotene (first isolated in carrots) and the yellow pigment lutein from marigold petals. “All have a wealth of documented health benefits and are suitable clean-label ingredients,” says Udi Alroy, marketing director.
Fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants, which are associated with beneficial effects against a long list of diseases. Fruit and vegetables as coloring agents have at least the potential to confer some additional benefits beyond color. “GNT’s Exberry line of natural colors is made only with fruits and vegetables with the help of water,” says O'Brien. “We consider these the most natural colors available on the market.”
The amount of an ingredient needed to produce color is relatively small in comparison to that needed to provide antioxidant benefits. It’s not likely one dose of a colorant in common foods will confer measurable antioxidant benefit. Colorants are listed toward the end of an ingredient statement. For this reason, any antioxidant effect of the colorant would be minimal, although exact antioxidant impact levels are unknown.
Still, it’s not unreasonable to assume the antioxidant value of naturally derived colors could add up over time. If the cumulative effects of the modern, low nutrient-dense diet can be negative, the opposite for those compounds with healthful benefit might also be true, especially for those colorings, such as carotenoids, which the body can store. “The effect of much food processing is to reduce the overall micronutrient load of the food,” says Boyd. “By using naturally derived colorants, perhaps we can add back some of what was lost.
Coloring the future
The two biggest trends in the food industry are health and wellness and the green initiative. “Food manufacturers and their suppliers will need to address these consumer concerns with new products that provide health benefits but without burdening the global environment,” says Sensient’s Edmonson. “Consumers will continue to demand performance, safety and something even more from food manufacturers - inspiration.”
Izze Natural Sodas Inc. (www.izze.com), Boulder, Colo., takes a much-maligned but popular product, sugary soda, and turns it into health food: sparkling fruits juices made with pure fruit juice, sparkling water and colored with ingredients that contain natural antioxidants.
Inspiring Izze were sparkling waters and juices sold in Europe, where natural colors are fast replacing artificial ones. “As the performance and color delivery of natural colors now meet modern processing requirements, they have steadily and almost completely replaced the use of synthetic colors within Europe,” says Lycored’s Alroy.
“We have witnessed most application growth in new, as opposed to [reformulated] existing foods and beverages,” says D.D. Williamson’s Rener-Nantz. The fastest-growing application categories are the premium segments of novel beverages, smoothies, organic foods, yogurt, fruit preparations, desserts, candy, sauces, cereal bars and other snacks, and pet food. It is the color of things to come that we are not about to go back to old formulations.”