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.
Blue as well as purple are the colors to watch in 2018, according to Nathalie Pauleau, colors category manager at Naturex (www.naturex.com). "Consumers like bold, strong flavors, and these colors convey a sense of richness and depth. We expect to see increased demand for spirulina as a clean-label colorant that delivers intense natural blues and purples in food and drink products."
Naturex also has experienced high demand for gluten-free color solutions, mainly in the U.S. market, while interest in non-GMO colorants is also rising. "An emerging trend in Europe is [the need] for palm oil-free options, in response to consumer concerns about the impact of palm oil production on the environment," Pauleau says.
Along with giving potato chips and French fries a run for their money, the sweet potato also can be a source of color. "They're a natural orange or amber color, but as with cauliflower and corn, there are also purple varieties," explains Verderber. "Our sweet potato juice concentrates deliver functional benefits including natural flavor and color for a broad range of applications — everything from juices and sauces to bars and bakery items," he says.
"Purples can be difficult to achieve naturally," he continues. "Accordingly, interest in our Carolina Purple sweet potato juice concentrate continues to grow. Purple sweet potatoes receive their color from anthocyanins, which are desirable for their antioxidative benefits. Carolina Purple also adds natural sweetness and a mild sweet potato flavor. Purple is certainly a fun color, but one we rarely see on our plates. We expect purple popularity to grow as consumers seek out unique color experiences throughout this year."
Titanium dioxide questioned
Although it's Generally Recognized as Safe as a food colorant by the FDA, titanium dioxide, which creates brilliant whites, concerns some consumers. Foods with the highest Ti02 content are candy, gum, mints and toothpastes. Consumers have raised questions about its use and often switched to products without it. Some researchers have found it may be harmful to cognitive and lung health.
"It has been a go-to ingredient for many years due to excellent stability in heat, light, pH, oil, and moisture, but has been at the center of many headlines lately," Sensient's Reed points out. "Unlike the ultrafine titanium dioxide used in some industrial applications, food grade TiO2 does not contain nanomaterial [which raises other concerns]. But there continues to be some public confusion between food- and nonfood-grade versions. Due to the confusion and negative publicity, it’s not surprising some brands have initiatives to seek options."
Sensient offers Ti02-free Avalanche natural white opacifiers, which can be used in any pH system and application, the company says. Avalanche offers a suite of simple starch- and mineral-based selections, including those for low- and mid-water activity applications, panned confections, coating systems and frosted cereals.
Naturex offers two options. One is calcium carbonate in powder and liquid formats. Recently approved in some applications in the U.S., it’s suitable for use in non-acid food formulas. But "Calcium carbonate reacts in the presence of acid and loses its whitening properties," explains Pauleau. The company's recently developed Vegebrite White, a clean-label vegetable-sourced alternative, is not pH-sensitive, so it can be used in confections, even at a low pH, she says.