Food Color Evolves As Consumers Push for Cleaner Labels

Aug. 25, 2015
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.
Natural 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."


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."

Watson supplies custom nutrient premixes, food ingredients and edible films such as its Edible Glitter (essentially ground-up film) using exempt colors. However Cavar says it's not always easy to switch from synthetics. "I wish [switching] were as easy as having suitable equivalents. There are three primary colors: red, yellow and blue. With those, you can make the rest of the colors of the rainbow. Most natural colors, on the other hand, are already combinations of colors, so there is no pure red or yellow. If customers allow us to use the artificial dyes, we can match nearly any Pantone color you pick. But if they require exempt colors, the palette we have to work with shrinks considerably."

Cavar notes that some of the exempt colors can be four or five times as costly as the FD&C dyes. "We tend to use more of the natural colors because they aren’t as strong as the artificial dyes, so we need to increase usage to get the same color depth," he says, adding that finding natural colors that fit into regulatory schemes across global markets is also challenging, as is trying to match a specific brand color. "Demand is definitely increasing for natural options, and we are consistently working on new colors from new sources."

Likewise, Cherian says most natural colors perform differently than synthetics. "Performance is greatly affected by heat, light and the pH of the application," he says. "Incorporating stabilization methods and adjusting processing parameters, natural colors can perform well to meet consumer expectations."

What about caramel?

Most of the color experts agree that trends in food colorants usually follow those in flavors, culinary trends, consumer preferences and changes in food regulations.

But caramel color, the dark brown material that results from the heat treatment of food-grade carbohydrates such as dextrose (corn syrup) or sucrose (cane sugar), isn't considered or defined the same way as other colors.

Tom Schufreider, chief operating officer at Sethness Products Co., Skokie, Ill., points out that caramel color is not considered a natural color by the FDA. "Our guidance letter on the natural status of caramel color says there is no simple answer to the question because there is no legal definition of a 'natural' color additive," he says. "Some people consider caramel color to be 'natural,' because it's exempt from certification (21 CFR 73.85 'Caramel')."

Schufreider goes on to say that caramel color doesn't require a certificate like FD&C Colors. "Caramel color is often included with discussions on other natural colorants, however, any color added to food means the food becomes 'artificially colored,' as described in 21 CFR 101.22 (k) (2), and the 1986 FDA Compliance Policy Guide.

"Customers request our class I plain caramel colors as they are minimally processed," he continues. "No ammonium or sulfite compounds are allowed in our Class I caramel color production. They meet consumer demand for cleaner labels on foods and beverages."

Many food processors would like to have caramel color formally defined as a "natural" color, he says. "Indeed, caramel color is made from ingredients that can be found in nature. Numerous Sethness customers, including some of the world's largest food companies and natural products retailers, utilize caramel colors to color their 'all-natural' products." So caramel color should simply be stated as "caramel color" or "caramel" on product labels, Schufreider says. "Caramel color is a single additive, so its compositional constituents do not need to be listed in the ingredient statement of the final food product."

Reformulating moves

Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill., now a part of Kraft Heinz, began replacing synthetic colorants in the children's versions of its macaroni and cheese a few years back, and earlier this year, announced its Original Macaroni & Cheese in the U.S. will no longer be made with artificial preservatives or synthetic colors starting in January 2016. Kraft in Canada will remove synthetic colors by the end of next year in its Kraft Dinner Original. Kraft will replace these with colors derived from spices such as paprika, annatto and turmeric.

Kraft spokeswoman Lynne Galia says the changes were being made to address concerns expressed by consumers, including demands for improved nutrition and simpler ingredients.

"We know parents want to feel good about the foods they eat and serve their families," Galia reports. "Making recipe changes isn’t as simple as it seems. Our loyal fans don't want their iconic Kraft Mac & Cheese to taste different. All of the ingredients have to work together to deliver the distinctive taste, appearance and texture consumers expect. We won’t compromise on taste, so until we were confident we had the right recipe, we were not going to change the product."

Bowing to the pressure to drop both artificial colors and flavors from its cereals, General Mills, Minneapolis, said recently that Trix and Reese’s Puffs will be among the first brands to undergo reformulations. Though the company's goal is for 90 percent of its cereals to have no artificial ingredients by the end of 2016, it's finding this isn't as easy to execute as it sounds. The reformulated Trix cereal later this year will be made with four colors instead of six, says Kate Gallager, cereal developer for General Mills, who mentions that it was too difficult to find natural alternatives for blue and green that achieved the right taste and color for Trix.

In August, Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., said it too will stop using artificial ingredients in cereals and snack bars by the end of 2018. About 75 percent of its North American cereals already don't contain artificial colors, and more than half don't use artificial flavors. The move follows a 2 percent decline in snack sales during its last quarter, as well as a 2.2-percent drop in its morning foods business.

Less is más

In addition to big food brands, many restaurant chains are converting to natural colorants. Taco Bell, Irvine, Calif., owned by Yum! Brands, is also removing artificial colors and preservatives from its menu, as is another Yum! Brands chain, Pizza Hut.

Taco Bell says the bright orange color of its nacho cheese will soon go from being manufactured in a lab to a natural color, which could change its look. The fast food chain in fact plans to eliminate artificial ingredients − in this case, Yellow Dye No. 6 − and all artificial flavors and colors by the end of 2015. The company says it will also remove other additives, such as added trans fat, and replace unsustainable palm oil with Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)-certified oil.

"Today’s customers want simplicity, transparency and choice in the foods they eat," says Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol. "They’re also telling us less is más when it comes to ingredients, so we’re simplifying with natural alternatives and staying true to who we are and what makes us unique."

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