Rainbow of Options
By Jennifer Korolishin
Beverage-makers carefully consider color in determining product formulation
Color is often what attracts consumers to a beverage, prompting them to take it off the shelf and give it a try. A beverage’s color is one of the first things consumers notice, and as such, it has a huge impact on a product’s marketing and sales.
As technology has evolved, the range of beverage color choices available to beverage-makers has expanded. This, in turn, gives beverage companies more formulation options as they attempt to keep up with changing consumer preferences.
Color considerations
Beverage-makers must consider a number of critical factors in determining which color is best for a particular product. Establishing the desired shade is usually the first step, a decision that drives a product’s marketing plan and technical requirements. Taste perception is also a primary consideration, as the color indicates to the consumer how a beverage might taste.
How a beverage is packaged and processed is important, as processes like hot fill, retort and carbonation, and the amount of light and oxygen let in by packaging can affect color or shelf life. The desired pH of the finished beverage is also critical, as it affects how colors interact with other ingredients.
“Things like pH must be considered because colors that work well at low pHs often don’t work or are unstable at higher pHs,” says Jason Armao, director of colors and special ingredients for Wild Flavors Inc., a Cincinnati-based provider of flavors, colors and ingredients to the food and beverage industries. “The composition of the beverage is important because ingredients like ascorbic acid can affect the stability of the color. Flavor sometimes can react with the color, as can salts, so when formulating a beverage, all ingredients should be considered.”
A beverage’s fortification with vitamins or minerals can affect color, as can other ingredients. “For example, ascorbic acid fortification is good for products that have colors like beta carotene because the ascorbic acid stabilizes the beta carotene,” says Jeff Greaves, president of Food Ingredient Solutions LLC, a Blauvelt, N.Y.-based formulator and distributor of natural colors. “A little bit of ascorbic acid is good for anthocyanin colors, but a lot of ascorbic acid destabilizes anthocyanin colors, causing them to fade faster. For the less stable ones, it can also cause them to brown. Even though it won’t create spoilage, it will decrease the shelf life, as it’s harder to sell discolored beverages.”
Natural vs. synthetic
In choosing a color, one of the biggest considerations for beverage-makers is whether to use natural or synthetic colors, or even a blend of the two types.
“With any color, regardless of whether it is natural or synthetic, properties specific to that color additive need to be considered,” says Susan Brunjes, color chemist for Sensient Colors Inc., a Milwaukee-based manufacturer of colors, flavors and fragrances. “Not all colors have the same stability properties. Each color needs to be evaluated individually based on the application and factors such as heat, light, pH, packaging, processing, regulatory status and other ingredients in the application that could affect color stability.”
The most popular synthetic colors used in beverages are FD&C colors Red #40, Yellow #5, Yellow #6 and Blue #1, which can be combined with each other or with natural colors to produce a broad palette. While typically less expensive than natural colors, synthetic colors can be more difficult to produce, 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 an established standard of identity exits (unless added color is specifically authorized by the standard).
“There are advantages to both,” Armao says. “In general, the stability of a synthetic color is better, and they can be easier to use. The cost of using a synthetic color is usually lower. The cost of using natural colors has decreased in recent years, and as a result, more people are using them. This, coupled with the fact that synthetic colors have received negative publicity, can make natural colors look more attractive to developers.”
Synthetic colors are so highly regulated in part due to safety issues. “So many synthetics have been delisted for safety reasons that there is a very limited palette of shades available with synthetics,” Greaves says. “Natural colors round out that palette so you can get different colors. Sometimes, the naturals are actually more stable than the synthetics. One example is red cabbage color, which is the same shade as Red #3, but is much more light-stable.”
Natural colors are typically manufactured from fruits and vegetables. The FDA does not recognize the term “natural color” though the term is common industry parlance. Instead, they are termed “exempt from certification” by FDA, and while derived from natural sources, these colors must be identified on the label as  additives.
“Natural color usage is increasing mainly due to fast growth in the areas of natural and organic products and functional foods,” Armao says. “A customer may decide they have to use a natural color because of the market they’re going into or because they want their product to be perceived as healthier. Some stores like Whole Foods often won’t carry products with synthetic colorants.”
Common sources of natural colors include annatto, carmine and cochineal extract, elderberry, black carrot, turmeric, titanium dioxide and beta carotene. Anthocyanins from sources such as grapes or red cabbage are often used as well, in part for their antioxidant properties. Caramel also remains a popular color for beverages like carbonated soft drinks and beer because it withstands pH well. Use of these and other natural colors is on the rise as prices have come down in recent years due to improved extraction and concentration techniques.
Different strokes
In addition to pH requirements, whether a beverage is still or carbonated also factors into color selection.
“Most color additives are suitable for both carbonated and still beverages, given that the beverage’s other properties are suitable for the specific color being used,” Brunjes says. “In some carbonated beverages where multiple coloring components are used, certain colors may stay with the foam and color it, while others will not. This can be seen in some grape-type sodas, where the foam appears slightly bluer when the beverage is first poured. The blue component migrates into the foam to a greater extent than the red component. This may or may not be a desired effect.”
For a still beverage with low pH, such as enhanced water or a juice-containing beverage, anthocyanins such as fruit and vegetable juice concentrates are often used. Cochineal and carmine are also common, though carmine can precipitate slightly as a lower pH. Antho-cyanins can be used in carbonated beverages as well. While that usage isn’t as common, it is now seen in products such as 7-Up Plus and Izze.
Radish, beet, carmine and cochineal are often used in neutral pH products. “They’re really useful in the neutral products because the anthocyanins, as you raise the pH, go from red to purple to blue to green,” Greaves says.
A beverage’s consistency can affect the color choice, as well. “There are some orange products we offer that are derived from carrot and pumpkin because they’re not 100 percent water soluble,” says Stefan Hake, president of GNT USA, a natural color manufacturer based in Tarrytown, N.Y. “In the juice area, where the density is a little thicker, they work extremely well. They wouldn’t work well in vitamin water because it would change the density, so it would taste a little thicker and might eventually precipitate.”
When to add color
Depending on the beverage, color may be added at different points in the manufacturing process, but as a rule, most beverage-makers try to add it at the end of the process.
“If possible, it is generally best to add color near the end of the order of addition of ingredients,” Brunjes says. “As a precaution, color should be added in a manner so that it doesn’t come in contact with other ingredients in their concentrated form, such as acids or flavors. This is because some colors could be negatively affected by direct contact with concentrated acid or flavoring ingredients. If acid and flavor can be mixed into the batch prior to the addition of the color, this risk is minimized.”
Factors such as heat processing can affect when a color is added to a beverage, as it can cause partial or complete fading. If the color is added toward the end, that’s less likely to occur. The type of bottling facility also may play a role, as such facilities tend to prefer that colors and other ingredients be shipped to them in concentrate form.
“It definitely varies by company,” Hake says. “We usually recommend that you add the color separately and you add it at the last stage of your batch-making before it goes into production. That way, you get the most out of it because as soon as you mix the color with the flavor and so on, you don’t have control over it anymore.”
Color trends
Today, marketing drives the beverage color process to a large extent, particularly as manufacturers use color to promote a beverage to various target audiences.
While the berry flavors and colors — raspberry, strawberry, cherry — are a popular staple, Armao notes, “I think a lot has to do with the age group that the beverage is marketed to. For kids, tweens and people who are into energy drinks, it tends to be brilliant-looking colors. With the adult population, the baby boomers, you see a lot more natural-looking beverage products.”
On the technical side, Greaves says ease of handling continues to be a common request from his customers, particularly where synthetic colors are concerned. That is often manifested by a request for a weaker solution or a liquid form of a color rather than a powder form.
Despite the upswing in natural color usage across beverage category segments, demand still exists for bright shades that sometimes cannot be achieved through the use of natural or synthetic colors alone.
“Beverage manufacturers that are not limited to using only natural colors or only synthetic colors open up a wider range of shade possibilities, such as bright purple shades that can be achieved when using FD&C Blue 1 in combination with natural red shades like cochineal extract or vegetable juice,” Brunjes says. BI