At least 10 words are both colors and beverages. From “coffee” to “wine,” the color of a beverage imparts so much to a consumer’s perception of how it will taste. A relationship that is just as strong also has emerged between color and wellness.

As consumers continue to become more aware of the ingredients in their products, the growth of cleaner, simpler and more natural ingredient statements are more appealing. “Vegetable color,” “fruit and vegetable color,” and “juice for color” are phrases commonly seen in ingredient statements for natural products.

Natural colors have been growing steadily across all beverage and food categories, mainly because of consumer demand for more healthful and natural options, color ingredient houses say. Nearly one-third of the new beverages released through September of this year contained a natural or organic claim, according to Mintel’s Global New Product Database. In addition, about 13 percent of the new beverages released during the same time period carried the claim “no additives” or “no preservatives,” it says.

“The No. 1 factor driving demand for natural colors is the entire market shift toward natural,” says Doug Edmonson, director of technology for Sensient Food Colors, St. Louis. “Consumers are looking for more choices along the health and wellness front, and natural products are leading the way.”

Innovation in the beverage industry also has gone beyond developing new flavors in a line to creating new beverages with functionality, and color conveys that as well.

“They are trying to differentiate these beverages, and one way of doing this is basically formulating something that is all natural,” says Stefan Hake, chief executive officer and president of GNT USA, Tarrytown, N.Y.

“If you really look at it historically, when is the last time we have seen a new artificial color?” he adds.

Natural colors also have been growing in popularity because of their potential health benefits, says Chad Ford, product manager for colors at Wild Flavors Inc., Erlanger, Ky. Many natural fruit colors contain anthocyanins, which include antioxidants that protect cells from the oxidative damage caused by free radicals. New research about the benefits of antioxidants continues to drive demand with consumers.

Another driver toward natural colors is the negative press regarding synthetic colors, particularly in the European Union, which has swayed public interest in favor of those derived from natural sources, Ford says.

The move toward natural colors in the European Union comes from research at Southampton University in England, which linked six synthetic yellow and red dyes with hyperactivity in children. On Jan. 1, the European Union will require that beverages and foods made with these six synthetic colors carry the warning “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

The United States is beginning to see similar sentiments in regard to synthetic colors. Last summer, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for warning labels and an eventual ban of synthetic colors. In January 2009, Maryland became the first state to introduce two bills concerning synthetic coloring. While neither of the bills passed, one of the bills sought to prohibit the use of the colors in school foods, and the other would have required food manufacturers to add a warning label prior to an outright ban.

In response to the question of whether additives cause childhood hyperactivity, the FDA states on its Web site, “Although this hypothesis was popularized in the 1970s, well-controlled studies conducted since then have produced no evidence that food additives cause hyperactivity or learning disabilities in children.”

Even though the FDA has not made any changes in its policies, color houses have been working with many multinational companies and exporters to replace synthetic colors with natural colors.

“The world is small these days in terms of media transmission,” says Campbell Barnum, vice president of marketing at D.D. Williamson, Louisville, Ky. “So independent of U.S. developments, we think that has had some affect on the U.S.”

Natural color improvements

Traditionally, formulators have been forced to work within the limitations of natural colors — that not every color works in every application and that a synthetic color cannot just be replaced with a natural color. Nature provides a broad palette though, and new sources of color and new color technologies continue to be discovered and developed. Natural colors also have improved in affordability.

“At one time, the price for natural colors made it cost prohibitive for product developers and marketers,” Ford says. “This is not the case today. We now have more color options than ever before, and we know more about the way natural colors perform and which color types are best suited for specific applications.”

Beverage-makers now have access to natural colors sourced globally, says Jody Renner-Nantz, a food science chemist at D.D. Williamson. For example, elderberry, which is used in many ready-to-drink beverages, is not readily available in North America, but is plentiful in Europe.

“We now have a global playing field, and we can source different ingredients at different times of the year, depending on the growing season,” Renner-Nantz says.

New separation technologies also are available that allow the concentration of juices to be condensed for beverage manufacturers. “Usage rates are lower because the concentration is higher, so they get more bang for their buck,” Renner-Nantz says.

One external factor that has benefitted natural colors is innovation in packaging, she says. Natural colors are subject to fading when exposed to light. Shrinkwraps around bottles help protect the beverage from light penetration. A larger diameter bottle shape also is preferable for natural colors because the larger size allows less light to penetrate the beverage.

A greater understanding of how to improve a color’s stability in a beverage by blending natural colors also has developed. For example, vegetable-based anthocyanins, such as sweet potato, black carrot, red cabbage and red radish, are more light stable during storage than fruit-based anthocyanins, such as grapes, elderberry, blueberry and chokeberry, Renner-Nantz says. Vegetable-based anthocyanins tend not to brown like fruit-based anthocyanins will, she says.

“If you blended those together, you would have more of synergistic effect where you have more overall stability to hold those together,” Renner-Nantz adds.

Using more stable vegetable-based anthocyanin sources has benefited red shades, Sensient’s Edmonson says. Vegetable-based anthocyanins have more complex sugar-side chains than fruit juice anthocyanins. Typically, fruit juice anthocyanin stability is negatively impacted by higher pH, storage temperature, light exposure, level of ascorbic acid and several other factors.

For yellow and orange shades, improvements in emulsion quality through nano-emulsification has significantly enhanced the ability to handle light and heat abuse, Edmonson says. These improvements result in less bottle staining and neck ringing in yellow and orange colored beverages, he says.

Since the early days of grape and elderberry, Food Ingredient Solutions has worked to develop a range of mono-acylated anthocyanins, in the form of black carrot, and di-acylated anthocyanins from purple sweet potato, deodorized red cabbage, red radish and elderberry Canadensis, which are much more stable and less likely to brown over time, says Jeff Greaves, president of the company.

“We’ve also improved on the shade range and beverage stability of beta-carotenes and lycopene, as well as offering completely transparent grades,” he says. Food Ingredient Solutions released a stable, non-ringing red-orange beta-carotene for beverages. The company also has petitioned the FDA for copper chlorophyllin which will provide beverage formulators with a stable natural green.

Another limitation of natural colors is their shade. Synthetic colors are very bright, almost neon, and have a high lightness value or “L value,” Greaves says. Most natural colors are more pastel, like colors in nature. Globally, consumers prefer foods with this less bright, more natural shade, he says. However, in the U.S. market, natural colors try to match the high L value of synthetic colors.

“We have been able to do this in a variety of applications through our breeding and selection of particular fruit and vegetable juices, which are high in particular pigments with high L values,” Greaves says.

Although natural colors continue to advance, formulators have to keep in mind that natural colors cannot have the advantage of being modified chemically.

“What you can do is control the environment when you grow them, when you harvest them” GNT’s Hake says. “Then you have a large variety of different batches available so you can mix and match them. That’s sort of where technology, science and art meet because it really is more of an art to mix these particular batches, so that what the customer in the beverage industry wants is a consistent color and color hue and color intensity.”

Next for natural

Color suppliers continue to work toward ways to improve stability and lower costs by providing higher concentrations. One method of providing greater stability is by encapsulating natural colors to protect them from pH, light, heat and other beverage ingredients that are harmful to the colors during shelf-life, Sensient’s Edmonson says.

“Encapsulation techniques could allow protection of the natural colors in new beverage systems where synthetic colors are the only option today,” he says.

Concentrating colors will require improved crop management and hybridization and better extraction and concentration processes so that natural colors can compete against the shade performance of synthetics, Edmonson says. Last year, Sensient launched Fusion Precise Natural Colors, an extensive natural color spectrum that offers consistency and stability, he says.

Consumers also prefer transparency in their beverages, which led Wild Flavors to develop clear emulsions. Obtaining clarity in beverages, specifically with orange and yellow colors, has posed challenges to developers in the past, the company’s Ford says. For example, turmeric provides a vibrant yellow shade, but is unstable in the presence of light; annatto is not acid stable; and other carotenoids provide the best option for stability, but are oil soluble in nature and traditionally come with some haze due to carriers or emulsifiers.

In turn, Wild Flavors developed a patent-pending technology that delivers water-soluble, acid-stable orange and yellow colors without opacity. The company’s clear beta-carotene, apo-carotenal and paprika emulsions complement Wild Flavors’ Colors from Nature line, Ford says.

Wild Flavors also offers an acid-stable blue color derived from fruit that can be used in both beverages and foods. The ingredient offers several shades of blue, and also provides the foundation for other colors such as green and purple. The blue also is easy to blend with the company’s Colors from Nature line, Ford says.

D.D. Williamson is working to develop alternatives to synthetic colors, and has created naturally derived alternatives that are similar in color to Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6. Last year, the company released a natural purple sweet potato color. Because the color is derived from a vegetable-based anthocyanin, it offers good stability, and based on pH, provides blue to red hues, Renner-Nantz says.

Earlier this year, D.D. Williamson introduced a natural beta-carotene alternative to nature-identical, which is chemically synthesized to mimic the natural equivalent. D.D. Williamson introduced a water-dispersible form created from a natural source. Beverages using the natural beta-carotene can state “made with naturally derived ingredients,” assuming the other ingredients qualify for the claim, the company says. Products containing nature-identical beta-carotene would not qualify for this claim. The hue of the natural beta-carotene ranges from yellow to orange, depending on the concentration, Renner-Nantz says.

Early next year, D.D. Williamson will release a certified organic purple corn color. The vegetable-based anthocyanin provides an orange-red hue at a pH of about 3.5, the company’s Barnum says.

“We’re excited about this because it does give beverage manufacturers the opportunity to have a certified organic natural color that is stable in an acid beverage system,” he says. BI