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The benefits and challenges of formulating with natural colors

Natural colors can impart beautiful hues and health benefits, but heat, light and pH can reduce vibrancy.

Consumers are trained from an early age to believe color represents flavor profile, freshness and overall quality of a product. For that reason, it’s important to consider appearance and source of colorants to achieve the ideal experience for your target consumer.

Natural colors, or colors that are exempt from certification, come from natural sources like vegetables, minerals or even animals. Thirty-eight colorants are exempt from certification for food and beverage, such as grape color extract for purple, beet juice for red and turmeric for yellow.

In addition to imparting color, many of these ingredients have functional benefits. Spirulina, one of the most common natural color sources for blue or green, has essential amino acids and is rich with calcium, niacin, potassium, magnesium, B vitamins and iron (Nutr Hosp. 2015 Jul 1;32(1):34-40). Beta-carotene, an antioxidant found in many vegetables, (Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2014 Oct 1;280(1):36-41) is used to create a red-orange color in products like Izze clementine flavored sparkling juice and Kellogg’s Strawberry Krispies cereal.

Of course, the benefits of these ingredients are dependent on the amount incorporated into the product, which is why some brands use them at higher levels to impart color, flavor and function. Ingredients like blue algae, beet, matcha and turmeric make beautiful beverages full of health benefits. One of the rising stars in beverage is turmeric because of its bold color and anti-inflammatory properties (Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017 Sep 2;57(13):2889-2895). Several brands such as Rebbl and Pop & Bottle have launched ready to drink (RTD) golden milk products, and a handful of third-wave coffee shops are serving lattes with turmeric for its inherent health benefits and the Instagram appeal of the bright yellow beverage.

While natural colors offer many advantages, these types of ingredients can be challenging when formulating RTD beverages. Before clean label became common, most beverages were colored artificially using synthetic colors to maintain color intensity, so bright, bold colors are something consumers have come to expect. Natural colors are more sensitive to pH as well as fading due to heat during processing and light, so product developers must choose natural colors that will maintain intensity throughout processing and on the shelf.

Learn tips on formulating with natural colors in this full article in INSIDER’s Colors and flavors digital magazine.

Holly McHugh is the marketing associate at Imbibe, a Chicago-based beverage development company. She focuses on the company's external communications and brand awareness. She also monitors and analyzes beverage trends to guide clients in making strategic decisions about product development. McHugh’s market insights have been published in BevNet, Beverage Industry, Natural Products Insider, Prepared Foods and Food Ingredients First. She has a bachelor's degree from Columbia College Chicago and a master's degree from the University of Denver.

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