"Tasting the Rainbow," as the Skittles slogan goes, soon will no longer involve consuming loads of Yellow 5, Blue 1 and Red 40. Instead, it might mean stealth consumption of paprika, beets and tomato.
Ingredient suppliers have figured out how to tap fruits and vegetables and other natural sources for colors. And just in time, as food and beverage processors, bowing to consumer demands, are racing to substitute natural colorants for synthetic ones.
Carrots are a good source of orange and yellow, and a naturally red variety of carrots is being mined for that color. Reds also can be extracted from the lycopene in tomatoes. Shades from red to purple can come from beets or elderberries. More purples can be extracted from purple varieties of corn or sweet potatoes.
Sweet potatoes are an interesting option because they have great color stability. Studies show purple sweet potatoes provide intense color and a wider color range — from raspberry red to grapelike purple — than other deeply hued fruits or vegetables. Another plus, purple sweet potatoes are loaded with anthocyanins—the substances that give blueberries their hue and make them nutritious.
Processors have used color additives for years to enhance or cover up the lack of natural color in foods such as confections, meats, bakery products and snacks, as well as to offset color loss from light, air and temperature exposure. Colors also add value to a product. Put simply, Orange Crush wouldn't be orange without colorants.
But as more research claims artificial coloring is linked with increased hyperactivity in children, cancer and other maladies and sensitivities, food companies are tasked with phasing out synthetic colors, and can't seem to do it soon enough to suit some food advocates.
Hurdles with hues
Food companies also must contend with economics as well as maintaining product quality, safety and shelf life. Equally crucial, natural colorants don't behave the same way as the easy-to-use, lower-cost, stable synthetics.
Natural colors have a reputation for having a higher per-unit cost, and a sometimes lower color content can escalate the costs of their use. Some "naturals" aren't as reliable or consistent, depending on the application, and typically have a shorter shelf life and vary in shade unlike than their FD&C counterparts. Given the differences in solubility, care must be taken to find the right formulation of for each product application.
Back to beets: The extract colorant, betanin, degrades more rapidly in high water activity environments after exposure to heat, which also drives a browning reaction between other components of the ingredient.
Finding heat-stable natural reds has been a challenge for baked goods companies because the colors can shift during heat processing from red to purple as their pH changes or to brown during baking. But heat-resistant reds are being perfected.
While it's not a fruit or vegetable, algae is at least natural and plant-based. Spirulina, a strain of algae, provided a natural solution for one of the toughest colors to match. In mid-2013, the FDA approved a petition from Mars Inc. to use spirulina derivatives for blue and green colors in candy and gums. FDA approval has since been extended to other applications.
Perhaps that enabled Mars to make a commitment last February to remove all artificial colors from all its human food products (not just Skittles).
"Removing all artificial colors from a human food portfolio that features more than 50 brands represents a complex challenge," CEO Grant Reid said at the time. And it will take years.
"The company believes the process of developing alternative colors, ensuring their safety and quality, obtaining regulatory approval and introducing the new ingredients across the entirety of its human food portfolio around the world will take about five years," the statement warned.
Similar efforts are under way at Mondelez, Kellogg and General Mills. General Mills made the commitment in June 2015, noting "more than 60 percent of General Mills cereals like Cinnamon Toast Crunch and original Cheerios are already without artificial flavors and colors from artificial sources and have been that way for a long time." The company expected to have more than 90 percent of the portfolio free of artificial flavors and colors from artificial sources by the end of 2016.
"Trix will now use ingredients like fruit and vegetable juices and spice extracts such as turmeric and annatto to achieve the fun red, yellow, orange and purple colors," said Kate Gallager, General Mills cereal developer. “Cereals that contain marshmallows, like Lucky Charms, may take longer, but we are committed to finding a way to keep the magically delicious taste as we work to take out the artificial flavors and colors from artificial sources.”
There may need to be trade-offs. Note that Gallager listed only four colors of Trix; there used to be six. New Trix doesn't have blue and green puffs because suitable replacements for those colors could not be found.
Kraft Heinz has removed artificial colors from Kraft's Macaroni & Cheese and Capri Sun juice drinks, as well as other products.
Jelly Belly's (www.jellybelly.com) Snapple, Superfruit and Organic lines use natural colorants. Its other confections free of artificial colors include Sunkist Fruit Gems and Sunkist Orange Slices. All ingredients in the organic Jelly Belly jelly beans are also made with non-GMO ingredients and natural flavors, says Rob Swaigen, vice president of global marketing at the Fairfield, Calif.-based company.
Panera Bread announced in mid-January it completed its previously announced goal of removing all artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and sweeteners from its products. In May of 2015, the restaurant chain made news by publishing a list of more than 150 ingredients it was working to remove from its U.S. food menu, as well as its portfolio of Panera at Home products. How? Panera reviewed more than 450 ingredients and reformulated 122 products, resulting in changes to most of its bakery-cafe recipes. It partnered with more than 300 food vendors to find solutions from ingredient replacements to rethinking how foods are prepared.
Back to spirulina: Noting the ingredient's use is expanding by double digits, Earthwise Nutritionals, a Irvine, Calif., a subsidiary of DIC Corp. (www.dic-global.com), is expanding production capacities for spirulina-derived blue food coloring and other colors. Its new facilities are slated to go onstream in 2018.
And Roha, which already has an extensive portfolio of natural food colors, just last month bought Essential Srl, an Italian manufacturer of fruit- and plant-based natural colors. Roha noted the interest in natural colors is every bit as strong in Europe as it is here in the States.