Artificial/synthetic colors are clearly phasing out of the spectrum in favor of cleaner, natural versions. As food companies work to clean up their ingredient statements, the accent is on organic and all-natural colors. "Red beets" looks better on the ingredient list than "FD&C Red 40."
"In [most] cases, removing artificial colors and flavors from products has been well-received," points out Cynthia Tice, co-founder of confectionery Lily's Sweets (lilyssweets.com), which uses stevia as its natural but non-nutritive sweetener. "In others, companies experience a decrease in sales and end up bringing back the original formula. It’s tough for food producers to weigh the clean-label decision when so many factors affect consumers’ purchasing behavior."
Case in point: General Mills in 2016 replaced the synthetic colors in its Trix cereal with shades from radishes, strawberries and purple carrots. But when consumers on social media lamented the more bland colors (and a taste difference thanks to a concurrent change to natural flavors), the company switched back to synthetics late last year, while still offering the natural version of the cereal. "We heard from many Trix fans that they missed the bright vibrant colors and the nostalgic taste of the classic Trix cereal," explained General Mills spokesperson Mike Siemienas.
"Consumers are pressuring formulators to develop applications without artificial colors or flavors, so color intensity often takes a back seat," says Paul Verderber, vice president of sales at Carolina Innovative Food Ingredients (cifingredients.com), which offers a palette of sweet potato-derived colors. "The time is now for formulators to start exploring innovative natural ingredients."
Brighter is better
Colors will be going brighter in 2018, according to Innova Market Insights' 2018 trends forecast. Since lowering sugar content is now a priority, product developers are hoping to indulge consumers with deeper, richer and brighter colors containing more antioxidants, fruit and vegetable juice ingredients and botanicals to create a pleasing look.
Social media appears to be playing a huge part in the trend, with "Instagrammable" food appealing to millennials. Natural colors are giving food developers a chance to deliver products that connect bright colors and health, says Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation at Innova. She cites examples such as the neon red of Raspberry & Cherry Super Juice from U.K. smoothie/juice marketer Innocent, which incorporates red goji berries. Suja, a maker of kombucha and drinking vinegars, achieves a sunny yellow with turmeric and ginger.
Mike Reed, general manager at Sensient Technologies Corp. (sensientfoodcolors.com) agrees. "Innovations have taken a turn for the fanciful, including colorful concoctions such as 'Unicorn' lattes and 'Rainbow' bagels," he notes in the company's 2017 Natural Food Color Trends report. This "Crayola Concept" has gone beyond icings at the corner bakery to mainstream packaged food products, he points out. "A perfect example is General Mills’ Lucky Charms cereal promotion, giving away 10,000 boxes filled only with brightly colored marshmallow bits."
New food and beverage experiences include global color adventures. Bold ethnic flavors require bright colors, such as the burning reds of Asian Sambal chili sauce, oranges of African sorghum and sunny golden yellows of Thai starfruit. In light of the changing Nutrition Facts panel, colors will be doing double duty as foods contain less or no added sugar.
Ingredients containing red beets, tomatoes, red cabbage, carrots, orange turmeric, purple blackberries, cranberries and cherries are a few of the simpler choices chefs and R&D teams are testing to create more food drama.
Colors are also functional, guarding against fading or bleeding from exposure to light, moisture, air, temperature changes and storage conditions. However, some are light-sensitive, so selecting stable versions is important. Colors also assist in covering variations and deviations in the look of products, and can lend a hue to colorless foods.
Antioxidant-and anthocyanin-rich purple corn, purple cauliflower, elderberries, asparagus and sweet potatoes are inspiring product innovations across many product categories, Sensient reports, adding it expects shades of soft lavender to deep, brilliant blackberry to increase in popularity. "2017 pushed the envelope for perfect purples, and products will provide consumers with a more authentic color experience," notes the company's color trends report.