As with many ingredient categories, added food colorings have been on the mind of industry professionals and consumers alike. As shoppers push for cleaner labels in the snack category, chefs and scientists working in these groups are challenged to find color solutions that add the vibrancy that appeals to customers in natural ways. Making the switch from an artificial coloring system to something more natural can be tricky, however, and there are a few things the savvy developer knows when working with natural colors. 

What are we actually talking about when we say “natural color”? The FDA doesn’t use the term “natural color,” but instead divides colors into two categories: those that require certification, such as human-made synthetics or lakes (pigments created from precipitation with a metallic salt), and those that are exempt from certification, such as colors derived from natural sources. The FDA labels all of these colors as additives, regardless of the source.

Natural colors are typically derived from plant sources through extraction and concentration processing methods. The results are color families ranging from muted and deep to bright and vibrant:

  • Anthocyanins (reds, blues and purples)—derived from beets, red cabbage, berries and grapes
  • Carmine (reds and oranges)—such as cochineal extract from Dactylopius coccus
  • Carotenoids (yellows and oranges)—derived from turmeric, saffron, and fruits and vegetables rich in beta-carotene, like carrots
  • Chlorophyll (greens)—as found in alfalfa, algae, spinach and others
  • Lycopene (reds)—tomatoes are rich in this phytochemical
  • Phycocyanins (blues)—found in spirulina extract

Unlike most artificial colors, natural colors are very sensitive to heat, pH, light, oxygen and other environmental factors. So, all of these variables come into play when making your color system choice. Conventional wisdom says that for best results, you should select a coloring system from the same food matrix as your product and consider the effects that variables like temperature, pH, other processing parameters, storage conditions, etc. will have on your end product. What works for one application, may not work well for another, and each color may behave differently in the same matrix depending on the supplier’s formulation and specific product attributes.

By only changing one variable of the product, color can change dramatically, so trying to use the same color from product to product can be difficult. For instance, when a natural red color derived from a plant-based anthocyanin, such as red cabbage juice, is added to a product with a low pH, it will appear red. But when added to the same product with a neutral pH it will appear violet, and when added to the same product with a high/basic pH, it will appear blue.

To get the desired vibrancy from a natural color, in most instances, a significant level of coloring is needed. This high usage level can be a bit problematic, as many natural colors are derived using extraction and concentration processing techniques from plant extracts and are generally unpurified. These concentrated extracts often carry distinct and off-putting flavors. Concentrated beet juice can create an agreeable red color intensity, but to get the desired color effect in some applications, a significant amount of color is needed, and the pungent cooked vegetal flavor of the beet very well might be noticeable. One solution might be to try a different source of natural red color. Another is to employ flavor maskers or alter the formula to decrease the noticeability of the undesirable taste.

Natural coloring regulations change quickly and often. Here are a few resources to search for and bookmark to keep yourself up to date:

  • FDA Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Part 73, “Listing of Color Additives Exempt from Certification”
  • FDA Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Part 70.3, “Color Additive Definitions”
  • FDA, “Food Additive and Color Additive Petitions Under Review”

While using natural colors can pose challenges, reformulation to replace certified food colors will continue as more shoppers add these criteria to their list of clean label necessities.