As an initial cue to flavor, only scent trumps color in attracting humans to food. Our expectations about how items should taste are based on hue, saturation, brightness and shade, and anomalies, such as coloring a lemon drop blue, can be unsettling.
“Color suggests flavor, and it goes back and forth,” agrees D.D. Williamson (DDW) Associate Food Science Chemist Scott Ondracek, explaining that describing an item as strawberry conjures up a wide range of perceptions about how it will look and taste.
Much of the appeal of color in foods stems from humans’ awareness of how plants’ ripening changes flavor. “Color affects the perception of taste,” explains Karen Brimmer, manager of innovation for baking and process at Sensient Colors, LLC. “For example, with products such as strawberries, if one is redder than another, it’s perceived as riper and sweeter.”
Ondracek says that when consumers see a familiar ingredient such as paprika or turmeric listed as the color source on a food label, that recognition — “Oh, I can buy this in a store.” — offers assurance that the item is safe and wholesome. “It’s an advantage for that product,” he asserts.
Increasingly, health-conscious consumers, especially parents, are demanding products with short, easily understood ingredient lists and eschewing chemical additives including artificial pigments. As a result, natural colors are emerging rapidly as must-haves when shoppers compare similar items.
In the U.S., the FDA is charged with ensuring color additives are safe and appropriate for use in food under provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 (FD&C), and it differentiates them as batch-certified (such as FD&C Blue #1) and certification-exempt (i.e., derived from natural sources). Currently six FD&C and 21 certification-exempt agents are approved for use in food (Spirulina recently was approved for use in confectionery).
Interestingly, Marlene Smothers, associate director of sweet applications, Wild Flavors, Inc., notes the FDA does not recognize the term “natural” when referring to coloring agents on food labels except when the color is inherently natural to the food holding the color. She explains certification-exempt colors, such as carrot juice, must be listed under their own name and purpose, such as “carrot juice (color) or “vegetable juice (color),” “color added,” “colored with carrot juice,” “artificial color added” or “artificially colored.”
Surmounting Technical Challenges
“We’ve been able to add natural colors in almost every kind of confectionery formulation, whether panned, extruded or gummies,” Smothers says. “It takes some effort, but we can adjust to get the desired color.”
Manufacturers are weighing the benefits of converting recipes to use natural colors, driven by consumers’ preference for clean labels and concerns about food additives as well as European Union prohibitions on artificial colors in imported foods.
However, reformulation isn’t a simple decision, according to San Joachin Valley Concentrates’ Brittany Blanco, a product development technologist. She suggests manufacturers accustomed to using artificial colors need to become fully educated about the technical aspects of working with natural colors in order to continue to meet consumers’ expectations.
Artificial colors have many advantages, according to Roha Dyechem, Ltd. Industry Manager, Confections, Bakery and Cereal Elijah Church. They’re readily available, inexpensive, easy to use, bright, concentrated, consistent and their stability is unaffected by heat and the acidity of the mass. “With natural, each color has its own nuances, and you need to be aware of that before you add it to a formulation,” he explains.
For example, DDW’s Ondracek notes some anthocyanins — the source of the red, blue and purple colors in plums, purple cabbage, cherries and blueberries — are prone to browning and fading and are affected by the pH of certain formulations. Turmeric, a root used for yellow coloring, is light sensitive, and both beta-carotene and annatto can be prone to oxygen degradation. Carmine, derived from an insect, can’t be used in products intended for kosher certification. In addition, flavor compounds extracted with the color from radishes and red cabbage can impart a strong odor when used in large amounts in a formulation.
In addition, Kalsec, Inc. Director of Research and Development, Applied Colors Technology George Kean notes that although oranges and yellows work well in oil applications, when water solubility is required, they must be added as emulsions. Further, processes such as extrusion or stretching and the degree to which a mass is processed strongly affect how a color presents in the finished item. Finally, the point in the process when the color is added is critical, Kean says.
Jeannette O’Brien, vice-president at GNT USA, Inc., adds: “It comes down to knowing how color is being used in the application, such as the temperature of the mass when the color is to be added, whether it’s being added before or after the sugar and before or after the acid. In the case of snack chips, is the color being added to the seasoning?”
Further complicating the picture is how the color will behave in items used as inclusions, such as toffee or candy cane pieces. Church explains that although a natural color might work perfectly in making the original product, when the pieces are used as inclusions in a chocolate bar or snack cake, the pH of the new formulation could cause the color to react very differently. He advises manufacturers to bring color suppliers into the product development process as early as possible. “Sometimes the color won’t be workable, and a compromise might not be feasible,” Church says.
Encapsulation can improve heat and light stability somewhat, he adds, but can drastically increase ingredient cost. However, Church says: “New products provide a much more favorable situation. The formulator has more freedom in working with natural coloring. You decide the shades you want and then work with the color chemist to achieve them.”
Another strategy, IFC Solutions, Inc. President David Dukes suggests, is blending, which allows the company more control in achieving the desired shade. He adds manufacturers need to determine whether they want an all-natural product or one that simply does not use FD&C colors, and explains natural colors’ susceptibility to pH, light and heat is an important consideration. Adding preservatives to stabilize the item disqualifies use of the term “all-natural.”
Smothers suggests manufacturers considering switching from synthetic to natural colors should be aware that many fruit- and vegetable-based colors require refrigeration. Further, the target audience will influence the decision: children prefer the bright hues of artificially colored candy; items slated for the European market require EFSA-approved natural colors. Finally, she says: “The cost has to make sense. If the brand connotes healthfulness, consumers will pay a little more for it.”
“The natural concept is so huge, there’s an enormous percentage of consumers who want it,” adds San Joachin’s Blanco. “Retailers should jump on that by letting it be known they have products with natural colors.”
O’Brien concurs: “Offering clean-label products can give retailers a big advantage. Mothers buy candy and they want to know what they’re serving their family.”
Matching Demand, Supply
Ensuring supplies of an agricultural commodity affected by weather, natural events, soil changes, pests, disease and political conflicts can be challenging for color suppliers, albeit less so than in the past.
Wild Flavors is among the companies that work closely with suppliers from several regions to ensure consistent color quality and inventory. Smothers says that in addition, the company meets with its accounts to discuss supply forecasts and strategies for fulfilling contractual agreements. “It takes more involvement from all quarters to develop a contingency plan,” she says. “It takes true partnerships.”
Growing plant products throughout the world gives GNT control over its supply, which O’Brien describes as “taking the vulnerability out of nature.” She adds key issues manufacturers need to resolve with their suppliers are concentration, clarity and strength of the pigments.
Noting “cost in use is the elephant in the room” in deciding whether to use natural colors, Sensient Technical Services, Confectionery and Pet Food Manager Gale Myers explains the technology required for extraction and purification has advanced and the price gap is narrowing. In addition, today’s natural colors are brighter and more stable than ever. For example, she says, “These days turmeric is so pure we can use less in formulations than FD&C yellow #5 to achieve the same color.
“Education is the key,” Myers observes. “Color is such a small part of any formulation. The more people learn and understand, the less impact the use of natural or artificial colors will have.” CST