A bright future for natural colours

26 Mar 2018

Natural colours are no longer the drab, unstable, and generally difficult ingredients of the past. Although many naturally derived colours still come with challenges, colour houses have made enormous and rapid progress.

A bright future for natural colours
Natural colours are the norm in Europe

The way foods and drinks are coloured in Europe has undergone a huge transformation since publication of the so-called Southampton study in 2007, which linked six synthetic colours (and the preservative sodium benzoate) to hyperactivity in children. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) assessed the study and found no reason to revise its opinion on the colours’ safety, but European lawmakers chose to mandate on-pack warning labels all the same. This accelerated reformulation, as many companies saw such warnings as a de facto ban, judging that few parents would buy products that carried the phrase “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”.

In the ten years since, colour houses have endeavoured to find natural alternatives to a range of synthetic colours that are vibrant, versatile, stable, and cheap.

Natural is the European norm

And they have been largely successful, as the natural colour palette has expanded from yellows, reds and oranges to include bright purples, browns and greens. Globally, use of natural colours overtook synthetic in value terms back in 2011, according to Mintel, and more than 90% of new European product launches have been naturally coloured since 2012.

The range of ingredients used to create natural colours has blossomed, giving food and drink makers a whole paint box of options. Ingredients include fruit- and vegetable-derived colours, such as anthocyanins, chlorophylls, carotenoids and betanin. Colorants can also be extracted from spices like annatto, paprika and turmeric, from spirulina and microalgae, as well as from flowers like safflower and hibiscus.

Price and colour stability create challenges

Despite a burgeoning range of natural colours, challenges still exist. Some, such as those from turmeric, are susceptible to light, but its stability has improved dramatically over time. The flavour of certain colours has also proved difficult, as those sourced from flavourful ingredients like red radish, paprika and red cabbage may have a distinct taste. However, companies have since developed purification techniques to deal with these off-flavours.

One of the most notorious challenges was producing a natural blue. Nestlé dropped the blue variety from its Smarties confectionery brand for nearly three years as it struggled to find a naturally derived blue colouring. It eventually found the answer in spirulina, a type of seaweed.

Spirulina-derived colours answered demand for blue and purple colours for many companies, but the bulkiness of such ingredients also caused problems. Whole recipes needed to change to replace minute quantities of synthetic colours with much larger amounts of natural ones.

The white colorant titanium dioxide also proved difficult to replace, but solutions now exist, including colorants derived from starch.

As for cost, naturally derived colours may never be as cheap as synthetics because of the relatively low concentration of pigment in most natural sources, but it has come down dramatically as their use has been scaled up and production has become more efficient.

Colour manufacturers have been hesitant to detail exactly how they have overcome technical issues associated with natural colours, but have said they have made improvements in how they have processed or purified raw materials. Their efforts have led to colours that are cheaper and easier to work with, with better stability at a range of pH levels and temperatures.

Crucially, the proof has been in the (naturally coloured) pudding, as new products containing natural colours often appear more vivid than those introduced ten years ago.

Finally, companies have also had to learn that natural does not necessarily translate to consumer acceptance, something Starbucks and Danone found out in 2012, when customers were horrified to learn their strawberry frappuccinos and fruit yoghurts contained insect-derived cochineal. Both companies later reformulated with other natural reds.