Color Your World
Natural colors gain popularity in beverage formulation
by Jennifer Korolishin
Supermarket shelves are alive with color, especially in the beverage aisle, where bright blue sports drinks, vibrant red juices and brilliant orange and yellow sodas compete for consumers' attention.
“The old adage is that Americans buy with their eyes,” says Owen Parker, vice president of research and development at D.D. Williamson, Louisville, Ky., one of the largest producers of caramel color. “Colors attract us, so when we go to any shelf in the grocery store, one of the things we do to perceive what a product will taste like is look at the color.”
Evolving technology has expanded the range of color choices available to beverage-makers, enabling a wide variety of new formulation options to keep up with ever-changing consumer preferences.
While both natural and synthetic colors are widely used in everything from colas to energy drinks, beverage-makers are turning increasingly to natural colors as they develop both new products and line extensions.
“The biggest trend is toward natural products,” says Parker. “In Europe right now it's even more apparent, as food purity is a very big concern there.”
Natural vs. synthetic
A number of factors influence the decision to use natural colors. Synthetic colors remain popular, especially the commonly used FD&C colors Red #40, Yellow #5, Yellow #6 and Blue #1. However, synthetic colors pose some challenges. They are more difficult to produce and use, and each batch must be certified by the Food and Drug Administration. Synthetic colors may be used in amounts consistent with good manufacturing practices, but cannot be used in foods and beverages for which there is an established standard of identity (unless added color is specifically authorized by the standard).
Natural colors, typically manufactured from fruits and vegetables without added chemicals, don't have as strong a regulatory impact. The FDA does not actually recognize the term “natural color”; instead, what the beverage and food industry considers natural colors are “exempt from certification” in FDA terms. Still, even though these exempt colors are derived from natural sources, beverage-makers must identify them as an additive on the label in one of several FDA-specified ways.
The use of natural colors is also a powerful selling tool in today's marketplace. “Because there's a high demand for natural products, the advantage is that you can use as a marketing tool the fact that the product is all natural, no synthetic color added,” says Stefan Hake, general manager of GNT USA Inc., Tarrytown, N.Y., a natural food coloring manufacturer.
Natural colors can enhance a beverage's appeal to health-conscious consumers, but it can also affect a product's placement on store shelves. Natural food retailers such as Whole Foods and Wild Oats do not carry any products that contain synthetic ingredients, so the makers of nutraceuticals, energy drinks other beverages that wish to sell to those chains must ensure that only natural colors are used.
But natural colors have inherent challenges, as well. “First, [natural colors] are going to be typically more expensive to use than synthetic colors,” says Byron Madkins, director of applications for food and beverage for natural ingredient solution developer Chr. Hansen, Milwaukee, Wis. “The second thing is stability. That's been a challenge for years, trying to figure out ways to make natural colors as stable or more stable than their synthetic counterparts.”
Both challenges are being addressed. As the supply of natural colors has increased during the past 10 to 15 years, the price difference between natural and synthetic colors has diminished, making cost less of a barrier for beverage-makers.
Processes such as emulsification and microencapsulation are now used more frequently to improve the stability of natural colors. Stability also depends on the way color is used in a particular product. While synthetic red colors are used frequently in beverages, in some cases, natural carmine and cochineal products can produce a more stable red color.
“Natural color manufacturers have really done their homework in the area of reducing the cost and delivering more stable products and being able to deliver, especially in the red area, a nice, stable, red color that outlasts the shelf life of the actual beverage,” says Hake.
Stability is critical in producing a beverage color that consistently attracts consumers, particularly in cases where a product may fade or discolor over time without added color.
“If you go into a store and you see a 10 percent strawberry juice, the one that still looks like a strawberry is the one you're going to take off the shelf,” says Hake. “If it looks a little bit brown, you think it's been on the shelf a little bit, it probably doesn't taste that good. To get your drink off the shelf, the product has to appeal to the end consumer.”
Madkins also notes that some beverage-makers turn to natural colors to achieve a greater color range. “Believe it or not, they end up exhausting the possibilities that you can get with synthetic colors. You almost need to bring some more crayons to the box. Natural colors can do that because you're able to achieve some different hues that you simply cannot get with just Red #40, Yellow #5 and Yellow #6.”
Choosing a color
Because natural colors were traditionally thought of as being unstable and difficult to work with, beverage-makers often focus on flavors first, considering color closer to the completion of the formulation process.
“Color is probably the first and most important thing that anybody sees — it's what differentiates one product from another and gives the consumer an idea of what they're about to taste,” says Parker. “Yet, usually, it's one of the last things that goes into making a beverage.”
Caramel remains a leading beverage color, used in carbonated soft drinks including colas, root beer and ginger ale, because it withstands pH much better than other colors; it is also used in other brown-hued drinks like beer and coffee and tea-based beverages. Other common natural sources include annatto, carmine and cochineal extract, turmeric, titanium dioxide and beta carotene. Anthocyanins from grape and beet extract are being used more commonly by beverage makers. Anthocyanins possess antioxidant properties, as well, making them a popular color source for nutraceuticals and other health-conscious beverage products.
“We're always looking for new things, like if we can extract anthocyanins from grapes for one thing and beets for another,” says Parker. “Now we're looking at some of the extracts from tomatoes, strawberries, black currants and black carrots.”
In choosing a color, beverage-makers must take into account how colors interact with the ingredients in the beverage, as well as the concentration needed to achieve the desired color and the pH of the final product.
“The challenging part [of the formulation process] is the technical part—are there any ingredients in there that can potentially react with the color? Is there ascorbic acid? Are there vitamins or salts in the product?” says Madkins. “These are the things that can interact with different colors in different ways, so those are all the things we take into account when recommending the best color for a product.”
The ingredient mix plays a critical role in a color's stability or degradation in a beverage. “One example is ascorbic acid, which tends to accelerate the degradation of Red #40, Yellow #5, Yellow #6 and anthocyanins,” says Susan Brunjes, chemist, natural colors, for Sensient Technologies Corp., St. Louis, a manufacturer of colors, flavors and fragrances. “However, it generally enhances the stability of beta-carotene and cochineal extract. Flavors may also contain components which can interact with colorants and cause degradation.”
A beverage's inherent properties can also dramatically affect color. “Micro-organisms are generally a concern with azo dyes (such as Red #40) when used in dairy products and dairy-containing beverages,” says Brunjes. “The N=N azo bonds are susceptible to breakage by micro-organisms present in these type of products.”
To determine how a color will interact with various ingredients and whether those reactions could potentially increase or decrease color loss over the life of a product, color manufacturers work with beverage-makers on an extensive testing process. Color dilutions are tested at different concentrations and with different ingredients, and are read on a spectrophotometer to determine how intense the color will be in the final solution.
“We would always recommend that beverage companies work with somebody who manufactures the color, who can give you a certificate of analysis and who has food scientists on staff that can do the actual stability testing for you because it is not possible to predict and say this color works in all beverages,” says Hake.
Additionally, packaging influences color choices, since the shape of a bottle and the label can affect how light passes through the package. Whether the bottle is glass or plastic can also shape how the consumer perceives the color of a beverage as well as the stability of the product.
Vibrant colors were once solely the province of synthetic colors, but technological improvements now allow for more vivid natural colors, particularly in the red family. However, some colors, such as a brilliant blue or green, remain unachievable naturally.
Combining natural and synthetic colors to produce new or more brilliant colors has been a successful endeavor for color manufacturers like Chr. Hansen. This approach is based partially on customer demand, but also on the fact that as families of products come of age, it can become a challenge to maintain shelf life and the integrity of the ingredients and colors.
“We've been finding that maybe Red #40 by itself will fade in a certain way or maybe an anthocyanin will fade in a certain way, but together they can actually provide a little better stability than by themselves,” says Madkins. “We're also using that to our advantage in terms of achieving different shades that you cannot get solely with synthetic colors or solely with natural colors.”
While no one color stands out as the year's most popular, it appears that vibrant colors such as pink, purple, orange and green will continue to appear with increasing frequency in beverages marketed to adults and kids.
“As we've become a world culture, we see that other people do things differently than what we're used to,” says Parker. “I think [the use of vivid colors] is partially due to some of the fruits that we see now in our grocery stores — we have a much wider taste and variety today, which spurs these new and different colors and different beverages and different tastes.”
Due to strict FDA regulations, colors that can truly be considered “new” do not appear with any regularity in the beverage industry. In fact, during the past century, the number of synthetic colors on the market has decreased as some, such as Red #2, were found to be unsafe. Instead, color manufacturers are seeking tomorrow's most popular colors through a variety of methods.
“What you will see are formulation advances. You'll see formulating colors with antioxidants or formulating them with protective ingredients that will mask or keep the color from being attacked by reducing agents or salts or oxidizing agents or things that we know will cause the color to break down,” says Madkins. “You'll see different synergies on the natural color side. Within certain product families we've been finding that as they're blended in certain ways, the combination of ingredients improves stability.”