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Evolving Colorant Industry Offers Rainbow of Possibilities

Evolving Colorant Industry Offers Rainbow of Possibilities

by Kimberly Hundley

"I cannot pretend to feel impartial about the colors. I rejoice with the brilliant ones, and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns."
--Winston Churchill,
Thoughts and Adventures.

First impressions count--and color is the mother of first impressions. When consumers are presented with food stuffs, color meets the eye before aroma or flavor can so much as wave hello to the other senses. Savvy manufacturers should carefully consider the hues and shades of their products, and the options available to them in the colorant market.

Synthetic colorants historically have been viewed as more stable and diverse than their more natural counterparts. However, the quality of colors extracted from agricultural and biological materials has improved in recent years. Not only can they give foods a clean label, they may play a functional role and provide a truly superior color. Cost and consumer demand are also factors in the synthetic vs. natural arena. Depending on pH and other circumstances, a blend of both colorant types could be the best choice for a particular food or beverage.

The concept of natural color is a no-brainer for the average person, yet as far as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is concerned, the term "natural color" doesn't legally exist. "FDA regulations do not consider any color added to a food product as natural--unless the color is natural to the food product itself, such as coloring strawberry ice cream with strawberry juice," said Penny Martin, manager of technical services for North America at Warner-Jenkinson, a division of Sentient Technologies Corp.

Stephen Lauro, president of ColorMaker® in Anaheim, Calif., said the distinction was drawn when the U.S. Color Additives Amendment of 1960 was being prepared. "Lawmakers were faced with a dilemma caused by the commercial introduction of synthetically made but chemically identical beta-carotene," Lauro explained. "Should the color require certification? Or was it natural? In an attempt to find a solution, lawmakers utilized a new term, 'color additives exempt from certification,' to encompass both 'natural colors' and 'nature identical colors.'"

Though industry typically refers to certification-exempt colors as "natural," colorant manufacturers must define the term for themselves. ColorMaker and Germany-based GNT's Exberry® are both suppliers specializing in natural colors, but Exberry works only with edible ingredients, while Colormaker offers a range of exempt colors including carmine and titanium dioxide.

Certified colors, commonly referred to as synthetic, are petroleum-based compounds of known structure produced by chemical synthesis. They bear numeric names such as FD&C Red 40. A sample of each batch must be analyzed and certified by FDA for purity.


A sound marketing tool for the natural foods industry is to tout a product's wholesome goodness to ingredient-conscious consumers. In the world of colorants, FDA's label rules prohibit the word "natural" from being used. Certification-exempt colors must be listed in one of four ways: "color added," "artificial color added," "colored with (beet juice, etc.)," or "(beet-juice, etc.) color." Certified food colors must be declared individually by name.

Jeff Greaves of Food Ingredient Solutions in New York said he would like the FDA rules overhauled. "The approval process and labeling regulations for colors should be the same as the regulations for flavors," he said. "This would allow for a distinction between natural and artificial. It would also make it possible for an independent expert committee to approve safe, new colors."

Some companies get creative with their labels. "Let's say they have titanium dioxide and fruit juice in the same blend," Martin said. "It's our understanding, they may say, 'Color added, including fruit juice,' and that would actually cover the titanium dioxide."

Of course, a consumer has to be able to recognize a colorant's name for the product to have clean-label value--not always easy with certification-exempt sources like canthaxanthin or annatto. Certified colorants are almost a guaranteed mystery. "I've had people who have asked me, 'Does FD&C Red No. 40 come from pigs?'" said Josef Chaudhry, Exberry's senior food technologist. "People want to be able to look at their formulated food products and understand the ingredients that are there."

Most Common Exempt Colors Approved By FDA

Exempt from certification colors, commonly referred to by industry as natural colors, are from a variety of sources including plants, animals and minerals, or they are synthetic duplicates of naturally existing colorants. The most commonly used are:

  • Vegetable Juice: black carrot, red cabbage, red beet juice, etc.
  • Fruit Juice: elderberry, grape juice, etc.
  • Grape Skin Extract
  • Turmeric Oleoresin
  • Annatto Extract (yellow to orange extracted from seeds of a tropical tree)
  • Cochineal Extract/Carmine (orange to red extracted from wingless, female insect)
  • Paprika Oleores
  • Beta-carotene (typically a synthetically made yellow/orange colorant found in many fruits, vegetables, and certain algae; certain natural sources can be used)
  • Titanium Dioxide (white, typically from ilmenite, an ore)
  • Caramel Color


Regardless of how a color is labeled, it should look good. In days of yore, natural colorants were branded as notoriously unstable, but science has come a long way. "Synthetic colors are generally more stable than natural colors--but in a surprising number of cases, natural colors are actually far more stable," Greaves said.

Formulation of a colorant is dependent on a host of variables--the pH of the food or beverage, heating, light exposure, shelf-life, etc. Each application of color presents its own set of challenges.

Some desired color scenarios aren't achievable with natural colorants. A navy blue for beverages doesn't exist currently. Fruit juice can't be used to color strawberry-flavored milk because the environment isn't acidic enough. Conversely, the bright and bold character of some FD&C colors can't be duplicated either. "Natural colors appear a bit softer when used in confectionary products, which seems to be an increasing trend, especially in the dietary supplement and functional foods markets," said Timothy Truby, director of special ingredients for Erlanger, Ky.-based Wild Flavors, makers of Colors From Nature.

Martin recommends food producers embrace the universe of FDA-approved food colors. "Blends of natural and synthetic colorants can achieve certain shades and properties not found when using them singly," she said.

Functional Benefits

Several natural colorants are associated with functional nutritive benefits. All the anthocyanins--the coloring in grapes, berries and other plants--and beta-carotene are antioxidants, as is turmeric. DSM Food Specialties' Nutritional Ingredients unit produces a natural beta-carotene colorant product, CaroCare®, which contains high pro-vitamin A activity. Though lycopene is not now permitted as a natural colorant in the United States (a petition has been filed), the red pigment is believed to protect against prostate cancer, Truby said.

Because colorants are used at such low concentration levels in foods, the true impact of their inherent nutritional value is unclear. "If you had it in a beverage and consumed it twice a week, you could see some health benefits there," said Byron Madkins, director of applications and product development for Denmark-based Chr. Hansen. However, he acknowledged not enough studies have been conducted to quantify effective dosages as they relate to colorants. Some supplement manufacturers already make capsules of concentrated "photonutrients," as the nutritional pigments are called, said Charles "Chiz" Gayser, technical director of human health and nutrition for Chr. Hansen. "You could take the color as a supplement, whereas obviously you are not going to take a spoonful of FD&C 40," he said.


Color is so inexpensive to begin with, the use of natural colorants may be 10 to 20 times more expensive than synthetic and still add up to only pennies a case. "There is a lot of thought in the industry, 'If I go synthetic, it'll be cheaper and more stable,'" said Madkins. "Maybe eight to 10 years ago that was the case, but a lot of pricing of natural colors has gone down substantially as the supply has increased."

Does consumer demand justify the additional cost? Martin points out that Americans seem to have a high comfort level with synthetic colors--even long lists of them. "Look at breakfast cereals, at confections. We feed them to our kids every day. We eat it ourselves." Yet the natural colorant industry in the United States is growing 4.8 percent annually, according to a 1999 report by The Freedonia Group. Truby attributes the increase in usage to the growing natural foods market, where color continues to have a stronghold in product and flavor perception. The demand for natural colors is strongest in Europe and Asia, according to Greaves. "In Japan, about 95 percent of the market is natural," he said. "In the U.S., consumer demand exists and is growing." Another contributing factor to market growth is the persistent belief that synthetic colorants contribute to hyperactivity, as alleged in the 1974 book Why Your Child is Hyperactive, by Ben Feingold, M.D.

When studying the rainbow of colorants, manufacturers should expect to work closely with food scientists--and be open to the possibilities. "Color is especially important for first-time purchases," Truby said. "Often, color is the last part of the product development process but is one of the most important aspects when developing a consumer product." 

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