Coloring foods especially for kids

Dec. 7, 2004
Colors are a powerful motivator for young consumers, but you should paint their foods naturally.
By Kantha Shelke, Ingredients EditorArmed with a fantastic palette of natural colorants, food manufacturers are attracting young consumers to try more healthful foods. The wellness implications of these plant-derived, good-for-you colorants appeal to parents, and many of the natural colorants also do a nice job of adding flavor for the young consumers. Despite the fact that color is the first and probably the most important attribute influencing children’s selection of foods, it is usually one of the last ingredients taken into consideration when formulating foods. Color is a critical factor for consumers of all ages. Color differentiates one product from another and sets the consumer’s expectation of how the product will taste.

Formulation with natural colorants is tricky business and should take into consideration all the steps involved in processing. Critical factors include pH, range of temperature, exposure to light, kosher status, regulatory restrictions and labeling requirements.

If dust and resulting cross-contamination is a major issue in your plant, ask your vendor for agglomerated colorants. Another option is to get a liquid version.

Inaccurate weighing and color mistakes, especially with dyes with high tinctorial strength, can be avoided by employing blends customized to the desired shade. Leave to your color supplier the responsibility of making the color blend accurately so just a single addition is necessary.

Finally, remember to factor in what will happen to the product after it leaves your plant. Light infiltration and temperature fluctuations can greatly impact the final color of your product, so carefully consider packaging, both material and the package’s shape.
Throughout the 20th century, food processors believed consumers wanted cheap food, and that added ingredients (harmful as they might be) made foods look and taste better. They also believed (as all parents want to, even though they know better) that children will eat whatever they’re told to eat. The food manufacturing scene of this century has evolved into one focused on creating food products loaded with natural goodness that look and taste delicious. Such products should tempt children without parental threats. There’s good reason to pay attention to the underage consumer, specifically children under 12 years old. Parents might be gatekeepers, but children ages 12 and under tend to be very involved with food and beverage purchase decisions. The 41 million or so 5- to 12-year-olds annually account for $10 billion in sales of foods and beverages in the U.S. Ethical issues make marketing to them rather challenging, and formulating foods products for them can prove to be complex. This is where the new generation of natural food colorants comes in. Wild colors from nature laden with flavor and goodness are the key to successfully garnering young consumers … as well as support from their parents. Keep it naturalOver the ages humans have come to rely on color as an integral part of how and why they select foods. Children, for example associate red hues with strawberry ice cream and smoothies. In practice, however, these foods are pale in color and require additional coloring to restore hues mellowed by the addition of ingredients such as milk and yogurt. The resulting vibrantly colored food has more eye appeal.But, whenever possible, use natural colors to achieve these ends. Natural colors can provide certain hues that one simply cannot get with artificial colors. It also has helped that natural colorants are not as expensive as they used to be. The natural color business has evolved considerably in the recent decade in the U.S. – primarily because of consumer demand for good-looking food products and secondarily because of the rapid growth of organic and natural food stores. Retailers such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Wild Oats do not allow artificial colors in their fare and have driven food manufacturers to innovate with natural colors if they wish to compete in the higher-margin natural food arena.
Children are naturally fascinated by colorful foods and fun names. No wonder foods such as Man Goes Blueberry from Happy Planet win over plain orange juice or lemonade.
At the same time, children’s diet and health have become critical issues in the U.S. And the children’s food niche has become an identifiable and profitable market for certain food marketers. The market for natural food color is growing twice as rapidly as the market for artificial food color. Health-conscious consumers and parents of young children are demanding natural and healthy alternatives to artificial dyes. While there still are no naturally found extreme colors or neon colors, there are many vibrant new colorants being derived from plants today. Some of these sources and their applications include: Fruit juices: Not only are colors from fruit sources natural, they can add some health benefits of their own. Candy manufacturers, in particular, view these natural hues as a way to enhance the profile of candies and gummy confectionery. Plus they can meet certain claims such as “contains all fruit juice” or “fruit juice for color.” Vancouver-based juicery Happy Planet ( employs colorful fruits to avoid added colors. Colorful fruits and clever names such as Man Goes Blueberry and Lulu Island Blackberry allow for fun and brightly colored tongues in concert with significant health and wellness implications. “Parents are drawn by the high quality and nutritional value of our products, and children are excited to see them in their lunchbox because they taste great and are loads of fun,” says Randall Ius, president and founder. He also notes, “We went against the 16-oz. mentality with our 11-oz. bottle to allow for small portion size and price point appeal.”Purple carrots: Both traditional breeding methods and genetic modification have helped develop vegetables with exotic colors, fewer calories and added health benefits. Orange cauliflower and purple carrots promise more nutrients and fun plus good news for those who dread eating veggies (just a single, full-sized carrot more than fulfills an adult's daily quota of vitamin A). “Carrots, the most important source of vitamin A for North American consumers, have been orange only for the last 400 years or so,” according to Sherry Tanumihardjo, University of Wisconsin researcher and assistant professor of nutritional sciences. She is trying to promote carrots that are red, yellow and even purple. “The new brightly colored purple varieties have water soluble pigments, so they turn your hands purple.”
Traditional breeding methods and genetic modification have helped develop new kinds of vegetables with exotic colors, fewer calories, and added health benefits.
The colors also add health benefits. The substances that make these colors are actually believed to be important for health. Orange cauliflower has about 25 times more vitamin A than white cauliflower, for example. Curing obesity, diabetes: Anthocyanins, which are used as natural food colorants, are widely distributed in human diets, suggesting that we ingest large amounts of anthocyanins from plant-based foods. Japanese researchers recently demonstrated that anthocyanins may ameliorate high-fat, diet-induced insulin resistance in mice. Their findings provide a biochemical and nutritional basis for the use of anthocyanins as a functional food that may have benefits for the prevention of obesity and diabetes in humans.Colors that change and sparkleThere’s nothing like fun colors to get children to taste foods that they otherwise would hesitate to try. Tempting them are the brightest of reds, the friendliest of yellows and now even a bright and natural blue. That last one has been a holy grail, but Milwaukee-based Chr. Hansen ( just released a new blue food color that is stable over a broad pH range 5.5 to 8.0.“U.S. manufacturers have been requesting natural blue food color for a long time, and blue is the only color that has been lacking from the pool of natural colors,” says Annette Møllgaard, marketing manager for Chr. Hansen. “Everyone prefers natural ingredients in their food, especially when it comes to foods that are mostly consumed by children.” It comes as no surprise, then, that the formula for the natural blue colorant will be kept a secret.“Children love playing with foods. And kids love bright colors and any food products that change color during preparation or consumption,” observes Penny Martin, North American manager of technical service at Sensient Food Colors NA, St. Louis ( Changers from Sensient offer precisely that in a range of color systems specifically designed for dry mix applications. These colors exhibit one shade (such as yellow) when dry, then change to another color when hydrated – so colored foods change into different colors in the mouth.Another fun colorant from Sensient is a line of brightly colored film particulates called Spectra Flecks. They enhance the visual appeal of a wide variety of food products such as coated confections, chewing gums, snack foods and popcorn.Fragility of natural colorsDespite all the virtues, natural colors at this point offer a limited range of colors and shades. Also, many of these additions have some fragility, often more than food formulators will encounter with synthetic ingredients. Extrapolation from one food system or formulation to another does not always work with natural colorants. It is important to test the colorant in each application and in each formulation to ensure shelf life stability and final product color.Natural colors are susceptible to change from other ingredients. To minimize the effect of other ingredients in the formulation, determine if:
  • Other ingredients in the formulation can potentially react with the color.
  • Any ingredient contains ascorbic acid, which might affect the hue of the natural colorant.
  • The formulation includes vitamins or salts that might discolor the final product.
  • Flavors in the formulation have any components that might interact with or discolor the colorant.
  • Microorganisms in the product might metabolize the colorant.
Collaborate with your vendor. Suppliers can help with antioxidants, emulsifiers and micro-encapsulation to protect the natural colorants from other reactive components in the system. Suppliers also can suggest ways to improve the stability of natural colors, which tend to fade or discolor over time.How FDA regulatesFood colorants are highly regulated ingredients. Of the 31 exempt colorants listed in 21CFR73, not all are permitted in human foods; some are allowed for animal feed only. Some are listed generically – such as fruit juice (21CFR73.250) and vegetable juice (21CFR73.260) – while others such as annatto extract (21CFR73.30) are specific. Despite being exempt from certification, these colorants must meet strict FDA specifications and are often limited to specific applications or at specific levels.The Food and Drug Administration regulates colors based on their end use – food, drugs, cosmetics and medical devices – and divides food colors into two broad regulatory categories: certifiable and exempt from certification.Certifiable colors are synthetic compounds with no natural counterparts. FDA lists only seven approved colors for general food use, and each batch of a certifiable color must be tested by FDA before it is approved for sale. The color then can be labeled as FD&C, meaning it is ready for use in food, drugs, or cosmetics.Depending on their solubility, FD&C colors may be either dyes or lakes. Dyes are colors that have to be dissolved to function, while lakes are insoluble colors and are typically used in products with not enough moisture to absorb the dye, such as frosting, or in those where color migration would be a deterrent, such as Skittles or M&Ms.The FDA exempts from certification and batch testing naturally derived colors -–such as those made from plants, fungi and even insects -- and also their synthetic versions. The synthetic version of yellow-orange colored carotene used to color food products is more economic despite their abundance in carrots. The regulations demand strictly controlled processing conditions and very high standards of purity.Among those exempt from certification:Natural or exempt reds: The FDA currently limits these to three main categories: 1. cochineal extract and carmine; 2. beet juice; and 3. anthocyanin-based colors such as fruit and vegetable juice concentrates, or grape skin or grape color extract. While this may sound like a wide range of options, each colorant category has inherent limitations.Cochineal extract and carmine products are very versatile natural red colors and can yield orange to red to purple shades across the pH range of most food products (2.5 to 7.5). Their biggest drawback is they cannot be labeled kosher. Beet juice, excellent for low water activity foods, is not a viable option for beverages. Other anthocyanins, such as red cabbage juice, purple sweet potato, elderberry juice and black carrot juice, exhibit attractive red shades but are essentially limited to low pH foods such as beverages, fruit fillings, frozen fruit bars/frozen novelties and confections. These turn various shades of purple and blue at higher pH.Natural or exempt blues: The FDA limits what can be used to create blue foods. Anthocyanins and stabilized anthocyanins, which currently are used to color foods blue, require careful pH control in the food system for color consistency. Chr. Hansen’s new blue has a huge potential to change this situation.Natural or exempt greens: Despite the fact that chlorophyll is ubiquitous in nature, its use in foods is limited by the FDA to powdered citrus beverages only. Food scientists have yet to find a green fruit or vegetable juice that could meet the specifications outlined in CFR 21 Part 73.260 and 73.250 and still be able to impart a green color without imparting the “green” flavor.Another peculiarity is the approach FDA uses for the qualifier “natural” for colorants. A colorant added to a food is not natural unless the color is natural to the food product itself. For example, strawberry juice would qualify as a natural colorant for strawberry ice cream but red beet color or juice would not for the same application.Variety affects how much one eats
“Little-understood contextual cues such as variety of colors can lead people to overindulge,” says Brian Wansink, professor of marketing and nutritional science at the University of Illinois and the director of the Food and Brand Lab there (’s research shows, for example, that people offered six colored flavors of jellybeans mixed together in the same bowl ate 69 percent more than when the colors were placed in separate bowls. In another study, Wansink demonstrated that moviegoers given M&Ms in 10 colors ate 43 percent more than those offered the same number of M&Ms in just seven colors, implying that even the perception of variety stimulates how much a person consumes.

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