Natural blue: the quest for the holy grail of food colours

2 Mar 2020

The colour palette for naturally sourced food colours has become increasingly diverse, but blue colours have remained challenging. What options are available to food and beverage manufacturers?

Blue is not a colour commonly associated with natural foods, which makes it a difficult task for suppliers to find a natural, food-safe source. But demand for natural versions of traditionally synthetic colours is at an all-time high, testing the limits of supplier creativity. Now a growing number are finding ways to produce naturally sourced hues, but it is still a niche area, and each option comes with limitations.

Natural blue: the quest for the holy grail of food colours
Stability is still a major issue for most blue colours

Among the most common natural sources are algae (especially spirulina), red cabbage and edible flowers. However, nearly all natural blues suffer from instability issues, including during high heat processing. Sensient is among a handful claiming to have developed a stable natural blue-purple colour that is not from spirulina. The company has called it “a unique anthocyanin”, although it admits it is not suitable for more acidic beverages.

One of the most heat-, light- and pH-stable ingredients is huito blue, for which Wild Flavors holds the patent, and it comes from a tropical fruit called Genipa americana, or huito. The company says it often uses the colour in combination with spirulina to produce a broad range of blue shades.

Some manufacturers were early movers in their search for alternatives to synthetic blues, especially those that already produced blue products, such as confectioners and cereal makers producing foods that were often consumed by children. Consumers are very sensitive to changes in colour, however, and some researchers have suggested colours may even influence taste perception. For food and drink makers, it is therefore crucial to get the colour right.

The challenges associated with finding a suitable natural blue colour meant Nestlé dropped the blue variety from its Smarties confectionery brand for nearly three years, before landing on a spirulina-derived option. Spirulina answered demand for blue and purple colours for many companies, but their bulkiness also caused problems. Many companies needed to change their recipes to replace minute quantities of synthetic colours with the much larger amounts required.

Blue coloured food may help products stand out on shelf, but started to fall out of favour with the move toward more natural foods in general. However, since the initial surge in consumer interest for naturally coloured products, another big trend has taken off: many are looking for novel-coloured foods and beverages with Instagram-friendly appeal.

One of the most influential forces in colourings – from home décor to food and drink – is the Pantone colour company, which announces its ‘Colour of the Year’ each December. While previous on-trend colours have been relatively easy to apply to food – such as its “In Living Coral” shade of 2019 or the “Greenery” shade of 2017 – this year’s colour is “Classic Blue”, which has set some manufacturers looking for new ways to incorporate the hue in their products.

As they do, it has become clear that there is still a long way to go before natural blues can be applied universally in foods – but that many consumers will still find a place at the table for blue coloured foods and drinks.

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