Contributing Expert: Pernille Borre Arskog, Commercial Technical Manager at Chr Hansen
1. Why do companies use artificial colors in the first place?
Generally, appearance is the first sensory factor humans apply with food or beverage experience. And the color of food is usually one of the first things consumers spot when shopping for groceries. By instinct people pick food that looks appealing and safe to eat. Naturally, shoppers deselect fruit that has brown spots, greenish potatoes or a brownish strawberry jam that looks over-processed. Vegetables and fruits have a distinct, beautiful colors from nature, but during food processing the color can change or disappear, making the food look dull and less attractive.
Artificial colors have been used in food and beverage for hundreds of years. Artificial color was an inexpensive way to make the food and beverage:
- Look more appealing;
- Correct for seasonal changes in the raw materials;
- Fix variations in how the food had been processed.
2. How long have consumers demanded (clean label) “natural colors”?
Annatto is one of the first colors from natural sources and was introduced to the cheese market in the late 1880s. It wasn’t until the 2000s when the negative perception of artificial colors escalated in Europe.
In 2007 the Lancet published the “Southampton study” that linked consumption of 6 artificial colors and/or sodium benzoate with hyperactivity in children. The study created media storms all over Europe among consumer groups. Following, major grocery stores removed products with synthetic azo-colors from the shelf.
Then in 2010, the European Union (EU) decided that food and beverages containing synthetic azo-colors (known as Southampton six) had to include a statement on the labelling informing: “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children” which forced food manufacturers to phase out the artificial colors in order to protect their brands.
U.S. FDA advisory panel on the other hand decided not to implement the same warning label. Despite the absence of a warning label concerned consumers in particularly moms and upset food bloggers have been fighting for removal of artificial colors in food. This have led major U.S. food & beverage manufacturers like Kraft Heinz Company, Dannon, Unilever, Nestlé and General Mills use natural colors and flavors in their iconic brands and several other large food manufacturers have announced that they will follow within the next couple of years.
3. why is it difficult to replace artificial colors with natural colors ?
Natural colors work well in the majority of food applications and can provide a bright and vivid shade — with generally long shelf life stability. But the pigments that are based on natural sources have inherent limitations such as sensitivity towards acidity, heat and light. In some cases it can be difficult to obtain the exact same intensity or shade as with the artificial colors.
For example: You can make a blue ice cream or cake frosting with spirulina, but this blue pigment is not stable in acidic products. That is why you can’t buy a natural colored bright blue soft drink that tastes like “lemon” — lemon is an acidic ingredient. Learn more about the natural color challenge in the beverage industry.
Food products that contain ‘natural colors’ appear differently than products that contain ‘artificial colors’. Consumers should start asking themselves, ‘As long as a food product is all-natural and looks appealing, does it matter if it looks a bit different?’.
4. Is there a color saturation difference between artificial colors and natural colors?
Yes. It is easy to create intensely colored food and beverages with artificial colors because they’re cheap and highly concentrated — so they don’t impact the texture or flavor of food.
When using minimally processed natural colors, there are limitations in how much the pigment can be concentrated (either from a process perspective or regulatory restrictions), therefore it can be difficult to obtain the same color intensity. Note: This is especially challenging in food products with low water content.
5. Are there limitations to natural colorants?
Yes, a great example is “bright red”. Though there are plenty of natural sources providing a red shade, the functionality of the red colors remains a challenge in many food products. Beet root color is a cost-efficient pink color that works well in applications with a low heat process, but turns brown during heat treatment.
Radish and black carrots also contain the pigment anthocyanins that creates a beautiful red color in a fruit snack, but the pH sensitivity of this pigment makes it turn blueish and dull in a milk product with neutral pH. Radish also has a tendency to create a strong off-flavor over time.
6. Why are natural colorants more expensive than artificial colors?
There is much higher production cost involved in production of natural colors compared to synthetically produced colorants. Natural colors come from plants like roots and berries, and the pigment that provides the actual color is only a minor component of the whole plant.
Think about the whole cultivation process involved in making a natural color:
- It starts with breeding of seeds that can develop into a crop with high color content.
- Then planting of the seeds in the ground and ensuring the plant will grow well with the overhanging risk of too much rain or severe drought that could ruin the harvest and impact the overall yield or the color content in crop.
- The pigment composition might also change from harvest to harvest and that can influence the quality and the availability of the color, causing fluctuating raw material prices.
- Natural color production requires planning months in advance in order to ensure that the exact amount of the various raw materials is produced to satisfy the global demand.
The raw materials have limited shelf life like many other food products, by producing too much there is a risk that some of it goes to waste. The natural color industry is constant striving to make this natural colors more affordable by optimizing the pigment content in the plants and find more efficient extraction methods so the color yield and use advanced color formulation technologies to deliver a higher color intensity and improved color stability, but the trend toward even more minimally processed ingredients and natural ingredients also limits the options for creating efficient naturally sourced color solutions to the food industry.
7. Which food products are most impacted by the demand for natural colors?
The food segments that are most impacted by the demand for cleaner colors are the ones we eat the most of during the day. The dairy industry has been the front-runner in the clean label conversion globally, food targeted towards kids (like breakfast cereals), dinner boxes, and the lunch box snacks.
Imagine the struggles General Mills must have gone through before they could launch the colorful kids favorite cereal Trix! (See below image)
The new red cereal piece is not as bright as the artificial version (because red colors are sensitive to pH and/or heat). General Mills also decided to take out the blue and green color, because the natural blue color did not survive the heat treatment, but the orange, yellow and the violet piece hues are very close to their artificial matches.
Without the blue and the green pieces, Trix certainly does look different, nevertheless moms loved the new “real Trix” with natural ingredients. And after 6 months of being on the market, General Mills announced that the sales exceeded their sales expectations.
About the contributor: Chr. Hansen is the only provider of natural colors that combines 140 years of unique application and regulatory expertise with a strong, extensive global presence and the widest natural color portfolio in the industry.