Cleaning up beverage colors

by Donna Berry
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All components of the beverage system must be considered when choosing coloring options.

During this past year the marketing term clean label evolved into the consumer-focused behavior of clean eating. The trend has had an impact on the beverage category as companies focus on removing artificial additives from beverage formulations, with color often the first to be addressed.

To clarify, color is not going away. Rather, the sources of color are changing from those considered artificial to those sourced from nature.

A majority of consumers from 10 countries in Asia, America and Europe indicated that when looking at a food or beverage product label, they do not evaluate every component of a product individually, according to a survey of 5,000 consumers conducted by the GNT Group, which has a U.S. office in Tarrytown, N.J. Rather, they use a method of elimination whereby they scan the label for certain ingredients that they personally avoid. If they discover them among the contents, the product is returned to the shelf.

The survey showed that consumers pay special attention to coloring ingredients. Often, color may be a deal breaker, with 60% of consumers worldwide indicating the absence of artificial colorants is of major importance to their purchasing decision.

Color can be delicious

If some activist groups had their way, no color would be added to any food or beverage. The thought process is that coloring deceptively enhances the visual attractiveness of a product, in particular those void of nutrition, such as calorie-dense beverages.

Studies have shown that color has a direct impact on flavor perception. The information received by the eyes in terms of the color of a food or beverage leads to anticipation of a flavor, and that initial assumption may override the information received from the taste buds and olfactory system once the product is consumed.

Beverages such as sports drinks or vitamin waters tend to be difficult to color because of the amount of minerals present.

A study in the March 2007 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research showed that the color of a drink may influence how consumers think it tastes. Researchers manipulated orange juice by changing its color with food coloring, its sweetness with sugar and its market positioning by labeling the cups with brand and quality information. They found that though brand name influenced people’s preferences, labeling one cup a premium brand and the other an inexpensive store brand had no effect on perceptions of taste. What did matter was color. The researchers found that the tint of the orange juice had the greatest impact on the subjects’ perceptions of the juice’s taste.

It is no wonder product formulators are not willing to limit the palette of coloring ingredients they use. But to appease consumers’ growing interest in clean drinking, they are willing to go to great strides to switch from certified colors to those exempt from certification. With the conversion, however, come some challenges.

“Consumers all over the world are demanding natural ingredients,” said Eric Jouenne, technical industry manager-natural colors division, Chr. Hansen, Montpellier, France. “Within the beverage industry, many manufacturers are responding by removing artificial colors, but costs and stability issues can create barriers against this change.”

He explained that all components of the beverage system must be considered, as well as their interaction studied over the entire shelf life of the product, as components in the system may evolve over time, affecting color stability. Processing and packaging influence color as well. Such variables as temperature, pH and exposure to light may cause colors to change, sometimes being muted and other times turning to an entirely different color. For example, carminic acid is orange at pH 4 or lower. As pH increases, it takes on a more reddish hue.

There are packaging variables that impact color perception as well. For example, a soft drink in a bottle with a small diameter will appear lighter than the same drink in a bottle with a larger diameter. Package shape, material and size all must be considered. Even label graphics may influence color perception.

Choice of sweetener is also an important consideration in beverage product lines. Consistent hues might not be possible using the same pigment in a fully sugared, half-sugared and no-sugar-added version of the same branded beverage.

“Beverages such as sports drinks or vitamin waters tend to be difficult to color because the amount of minerals present in the product can have a negative effect on the stability, particularly in red shades, making even artificial colors such as red F.D.&C 40 fade,” Mr. Jouenne said.

Other challenging applications are beverages displaying pale shades.

“A growing number of beverage producers are decreasing color dosages to get more natural-like shades,” Mr. Jouenne said. “Light stability is often affected when dosages are too low.”

With powdered drink mixes, color stability must be addressed during the three different phases: when it’s in dry mix format, when it’s being dissolved into a liquid and when it’s in the glass, ready to drink.

“Drink mixes can experience a dephasing effect, which is when the color and the rest of the mix are separated due to density differences,” Mr. Jouenne said.

This separation may impact color development during reconstitution and intensity in the finished product, especially if the mix comes from a multi-serving canister.

Jody Renner-Nantz, senior application scientist, DDW The Color House, Louisville, Ky., said customizing “just the right shade” in a dry, natural beverage mix is quite challenging.

“You need to match both surface shade and reconstituted beverage hue,” she said. “Consistent particle size prevents striations of coloring and other ingredients.”

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