Food Color Evolves As Consumers Push for Cleaner Labels

Colors no doubt enhance the look and quality perception of food, but the health conscious movement is prompting more demand for natural colorants. So far, going natural isn't as easy as it sounds.

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

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Watson GlitterNatural colors are becoming more popular as demand for healthier, organic ingredients and clean labels continue to push the envelope. These food colors can come from sources such as red beets, sweet potatoes, vegetable juices and purple carrots.

In North America, the overall food and beverage colorants market is inching upward, at a compound annual rate of 4.7 percent, from 2014 to 2019, says research firm MicromarketMonitor. The report also says revenue from the natural global colors market will reach $1.3 billion by 2017, reflecting a compound annual growth rate of 10.4 percent over the preceding five years.

That may be because colors not only enhance visual appeal, they can also influence consumers’ perception of a product’s taste and quality. That's why it's important to ensure that a natural color system is stable during processing for the desired shelf life of the finished product. Synthetics are usually quite stable, but it’s not always easy to find suitably stable natural sources for the shades needed.

"Some of the raw materials for natural colors are only available in specific locations of the world," explains Rajesh Cherian, product manager of natural colors at Roha USA, St. Louis. "Industry is trying to use technologies to overcome this limitation."

While natural colors are derived from minerals, animals or plants, such elderberry, beetroot and the recently FDA-approved spirulina, artificial colors in the U.S., or certified colors, are labeled FD&C colors. These include Red No. 40 (Allura red AC), Red No. 3 (Erythrosine), Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue FCF) Blue No. 2 (Indigotine) and Green No.3 (Fast green FCF).

Cherian says Roha is experiencing an upswing in demand for all exempt colors in the U.S., though he points out the company hasn't seen a drop in use of synthetic colors either.

"Today’s educated customers are reading ingredient and nutritional statements for foods they buy," he notes. "Food manufacturers are trying to switch to natural colors or launch new product lines [featuring] colors sourced from nature."

Today’s educated customers are reading ingredient and nutritional statements for foods they buy. Food manufacturers are trying to switch to natural colors or launch new product lines [featuring] colors sourced from nature.

– Rajesh Cherian, Roha USA

In general, natural colors still cost more than synthetics or carry one compromise or another over the artificial versions. But they provide the value of a cleaner label that the artificial versions can't, and some suppliers are developing more cost-effective natural colorants, as the widespread use of dyes in food and beverages has raised questions about dye safety levels.

According to a study conducted by Kalsec, a Kalamazoo, Mich., producer of spices, herb flavor extracts and natural colors, parents are especially concerned about artificial red colors such as Red Dye 40, and 83 percent said they were more likely to buy foods for their children that contain a naturally sourced color than a synthetic one.

The study found that seven of every 10 parents surveyed indicated they'd be willing to pay a premium for food products containing naturally sourced colors instead of synthetics.

"Consumers are increasingly aware of what goes into their foods," agrees Rebeka Davis, technical application specialist at GNT USA, Tarrytown, N.Y., a vertically integrated producer of fruit and vegetable juice concentrates for use as colorings in foods and beverages.

"'Fruit & Vegetable Juice for Color' is a recognizable, consumer friendly label," she says. Regarding costs, Davis finds the impact of colors derived from fruits and vegetables is minimal to the overall ingredient cost for a product. "The value comes from adding a color that aligns with what consumers want, which can help broaden the demographic and increase product appeal."

With the mounting occurrences of foodborne illnesses, product recalls and increasing demand for new food products, color additives are more strictly studied, regulated and monitored now than at any other time in history. The FDA has the primary legal responsibility for determining their safe use and evaluates safety data to ensure food color additives are safe for their intended purposes before a new color additive is approved for release to the market.

That means color makers must obtain regulatory approval for new colors, whether they are natural or synthetic. The approval process can be a hurdle, but it's generally easier for a single application. "Shade and stability of natural colors are very specific to the application," Cherian mentions. "So switching to a natural color will depend on the end product. But natural color suppliers with application support teams can work closely to make the transfer easy."

Not an easy swap

New options for yellows, blues and reds are coming from sources such as turmeric, spirulina, annatto and paprika. Recent approval of iron oxides that create red, yellow and black shades (for confectionery applications) has increased the exempt color palette, Cherian points out.

"Identities of natural/exempt colors are based on the source of the color," he says. "The key is to have the right variety of raw materials, growing conditions and extraction methods. It's important that natural color suppliers also focus on global sourcing, developing multiple source points and following crop forecasts.

While many of its customers are still using FD&C dyes, Watson Inc., West Haven, Conn., has seen a marked increase in the demand for natural colors, affirms Joe Cavar, R&D manager, Film Division. "This is not to say natural colors are free from regulation. There are still limits as to what is allowed and in what quantities. But we have commercialized some products using beta carotene, cabbage juice extract, radish juice extract, turmeric and chlorophyll as the color additives."

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