Demand For Natural Colors Strong

As consumers scrutinize food labels for artificial ingredients of all kinds, natural colors are growing in number.

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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

When using natural colorants, many processing conditions such as temperature, other ingredients and packaging, take on greater importance. Color loss also occurs due to the colorant’s exposure to heat, light or more alkaline conditions.


“Such news makes consumers choose food with an ever more critical eye,” says Jeannette O'Brien, senior manager at GNT USA Inc. (, 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. (, Louisville, Ky.

Taking a page from nature’s book on guarding colors, Naturex Inc. (, 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.”

Functional color
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 (, 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.”

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