The economy may be sinking but demand for more natural ingredients in foods is still strong. To that end, colorant specialists are helping food and beverage manufacturers with naturally derived products that deliver vibrant-yet-real tints for products to keep appeal high but chemistry to a minimum.
“The Southampton study on issues with artificial colors definitely prompted a renewed interest in natural colors,” says Thierry Jones, general manager-North America for Diana Naturals Inc. (www.diana-naturals.com), Valley Cottage, N.Y. “Even in areas like confectionary, typically not open to natural colors, we’ve seen increased interest from companies desiring to switch to naturals, in spite of additional cost and [occasional] hurdles.”
The 2007 study by Southampton University, funded by the British Food Standards Agency, was the one that made a connection between six artificial colors (when consumed with sodium benzoate) and hyperactivity in children.
“I have to ask [customers], ‘How do you define natural?’ ” says Dave Tuescher, technical director at Sethness Caramel Color (www.sethness.com), Lincolnwood, Ill. “I can tell you how our caramel color stacks up against your definition, point by point. But only you can decide if it’s natural.”
“There’s actually no such thing as a ‘natural’ food color from a regulatory perspective, except when you use a juice, extract or powder of the same fruit or vegetable as is (prominent) in the product,” says Winston Boyd, colorant expert and technical director of R&D for Lawrence Foods Inc. (www.lawrencefoods.com), Elk Grove Village, Ill. “The term ‘natural color’ from the standpoint of U.S. regulation is deemed to mean color that is natural to the specific product in use and not that the color itself is derived from nature, as is commonly believed.”
The FDA has defined natural flavors, but not natural colors. “For example, an ingredient statement might read: water, sugar, orange juice concentrate, natural flavors, annatto extract (color), sodium benzoate. The FDA permits the use of the word natural to modify a flavor ingredient, but not to modify a color additive,” says Jennifer Guild, global food science and regulatory manager at D.D. Williamson (www.naturalcolors.com), Louisville, Ky.
“By far, the most common question we get is: ‘Is your caramel color natural?’ ” says Brian Sethness, president of Sethness Caramel Color. “If the FDA would make a clear decision on what is natural, that would be great for us.”
While there are great pressures on FDA to make that determination – for foods as well as colorants and other additives – that definition does not appear in the offing. As recently as April, Ritu Nalubola in the Office of Nutrition, Labeling and Dietary Supplements within the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, repeated the agency’s stand at a webinar on natural claims sponsored by the Food and Drug Law Institute.
While acknowledging the term’s widespread use and consumer confusion over what it means, she restated the agency’s intention not to define the term because of limited resources. She also repeated the position not to restrict the use of “natural” except for added color, synthetic substances and flavor.
Since 1988, the FDA has considered “natural to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including colors, regardless of source) is included in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be expected to be there,” one of her slides read. “For example, the addition of beet juice to lemonade to make it pink would preclude the product being called ‘natural.’ ”
“It is the position of the FDA that ‘natural color’ may imply the additive is a naturally occurring constituent inside the food,” she continues. “The FDA has set forth multiple examples of how to declare color additives exempt from certification on an ingredient statement, including ‘colored with annatto extract,’ ‘annatto extract (color)’ or ‘color added.’ ”
Boyd describes the practical impact: “If you use strawberry juice concentrate to color strawberry preserves, it can be labeled a ‘natural color.’ If you use the same strawberry juice concentrate to enhance the color of raspberry preserves, that color is now artificial and must be labeled according to regulatory guidelines.”
But this hasn’t stopped ingredient makers from staying on-trend with natural alternatives to synthetic colors. Moreover, they’re stepping beyond the traditional vendor roles to partner with food and beverage manufacturers in effecting such transitions.
D.D. Williamson provides processors written guidelines and personal assistance focusing on naturally derived blends, especially organics. The company developed a full line of organic extracts of the annatto bean, a carotenoid that can be employed along the yellow-to-red spectrum. It also offers natural colors based on beta-carotene, paprika extract, turmeric, betalains (from red beets), anthocyanins from various dark fruits and vegetables, carmine and cochineal extract, chlorophyll and caramel.
Carotenoid- and other nature-derived colorants often have another advantage: the nutraceutical component. When a colorant can serve as a functional health ingredient, it enhances marketability of the end product.
Sensient Technologies Corp. (www.sensientfoodcolors.com), Milwaukee, expanded its offerings of natural colors equally promoting health and wellness. Its line of preservative- and GMO-free “Fusion Precise Natural Color Systems” is one example.
Lycored Ltd. (www.lycored.com), focuses almost exclusively on carotenoid-based functional colorants, especially lycopene. Its Tomat-O-Red lycopene ingredient recently received permission in the EU to be used as a component of “foods for special medical purposes at the level needed for the particular nutritional use.” It can be thus included (in established amounts) in claims for sports/energy products, weight reduction and other functional foods.
“Lycopene has been the subject of many clinical trials that repeatedly demonstrated its healthful properties,” says Andrew Kendrick, Lycored’s international technical development manager. “Tomat-O-Red has not been chemically modified in any way, and as such is ideal as a natural color in product development and reformulation to meet the current trend for natural colors.”
Tomat-O-Red is available in powder and liquid forms, with formulations based on dispersions of micronized lycopene crystals. “An advantage of such formulation types is no migration or bleeding of color between phases, as with other natural red colors,” Kendrick says.
Color in foods and beverages also “drives other sensory attributes of the products, defines the nutritional value of the products and provides an emotional attribute that drives consumer behavior,” according to Soumya Roy, senior principal scientist-R&D for Ocean Spray Inc. (www.oceanspray.com), Lakeville, Mass.
“Color intensity provides the perception of flavor [and] the image of the product. Color plays an important role in Ocean Spray value positioning regarding taste,” Roy notes, conveying “bold signature flavors, sensorial and cognitive stimuli and cranberry health benefits.”
One case study Roy cites involves the reformulation of a cranberry blend, in which the reformulation had a slightly lighter color. Focus testing showed the test product to be less acceptable than the control.
Soumya Roy of Ocean Spray Inc., cites the concept of “huetrition,” as coined by Kimberly Egan of the Center for Culinary Development. Huetrition is the selection of foods because of their vibrant colors; more specifically, that the deeply pigmented hues from vitamin- and antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables hint at their nutrition. Incorporating as many colors as possible into your diet is the basic platform for the system.
“Dark” is the future of food colors, Roy says. Specifically, “dark chocolate, red wine and tea that bolster dark colors that deliver health.” Huetrition also includes “removal of artificial colors,” he adds.
“Color has been proven to drive other sensory attributes and can serve to define the nutritional value of products,” he continues. “Tomato ketchup historically is red [and] other colors are contradictions. ‘Cranberry’ is a color, while ‘white cranberry’ is a contradiction. Color provides meaning that is culturally and historically based, and color is a key carrier of brand equity.”
He also says color adds to the consumer value proposition. “It defines the image of food products. Color drives the emotional attributes associated with the product. Companies can capitalize on the multi-dimensional aspect of color to communicate the value of their brands.”
Photo: Wild Flavors
Using carotenoid colorants in clear beverages, however, can pose certain disadvantages. “Obtaining clarity in beverages, specifically with orange and yellow colors, has posed challenges to developers,” says Chad Ford product manager for colors and specialty ingredients at Wild Flavors Inc. (www.wildflavors.com), Erlanger, Ky.
“Turmeric provides a vibrant yellow shade, but is unstable in the presence of light, while annatto is not acid-stable,” Ford adds. “[Other] carotenes provide the best option for stability, but are oil-soluble [and] come with some haze due to carriers or emulsifiers.”
Wild developed patent-pending technology to deliver water-soluble, acid-stable orange and yellow colors without the opacity problem. Its clear beta-carotene, apo-carotenal and paprika emulsions are part of its “Colors from Nature” line.
Yellow colorants can pose other hurdles, especially when one must balance between “naturalness” and vividness. “At Lawrence Foods we frequently face color challenges that result from the performance needs of our customers,” says Boyd. “For instance, with fruit fillings we generally use little added color because the fruit supplies us with most of what we need. But in one recent case we were asked to give a fruit filling a certain intensity of appearance.”
Initially, Boyd looked at FD&C Yellow No. 5 for its brightness and compatibility with the fruit component of the client’s product. “It worked well,” he explains, “but we found that [instead] adding a small amount of turmeric oleoresin also gave the desired color, so we were able to offer the customer the option of a natural color. This turned out to be a better fit with the customer’s marketing needs.” Boyd cautions that turmeric can be highly light sensitive and recommends using it only in applications where light exposure will be minimal.
“Natural colors have challenges with stability compared to artificial colors,” warns Jones. “High temperatures and rough treatment — natural colors just can’t handle them.” Consumer expectations play a role as well. “Synthetic red is very strong, for example. We can’t reproduce that on the natural side to the same strength and concentration. Additionally, there are natural variations. We work hard to eliminate these, but natural colors are ‘natural,’ after all.”
Stable, natural blue and green colors for certain applications are difficult, according to Ellen Grinde, director of corporate communications for Sensient. “Sensient has been successful in providing stable, natural blues and greens in baked goods and confection applications,” she said, but beverages and dairy are challenges for those colors.