'Natural' colors continue to shine

by David Phillips
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Vitaminwater is a success-ful brand in the enhanced bottled water segment, and Honest Tea holds a similar position in the ready-to-drink iced tea category. Both brands are young, with roots in entrepreneurial enterprises, and both are owned by the world’s largest beverage marketer, the Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta. And both use only colors perceived as natural to brighten their shelf presence.

One of Vitaminwater’s offerings is called stur-D. Its flavor is a blend of blue agave, passion fruit and citrus, and its color is as blue as a Smurf. A few years ago, a beverage of that color would have been tough to produce without the use of a certified color, but companies that make natural colors have been busy of late.

The growth in natural colors — technically known as “exempt from certification” — may be traced to a 2007 Southampton University Study in the United Kingdom that found evidence linking certified colors to hyperactivity in children. That evidence led to warning labels on European foods using some certified colors.

A review of the ingredient labels of Honest Tea and Vitaminwater products reveals most use colors sourced from fruits and vegetables. There are several plants now being used to produce natural colorants, and both the palette and the source materials for standard hues continue to evolve, said Byron Madkins, senior director of product development and application for colors at Chr. Hansen, Milwaukee. Take for nstance a red color for beverages.

“Elderberry and grape, those are kind of the old guys, for red — those go back to the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Mr. Madkins said. “Purple carrot was the new kid on the block in the 1990s. Violet sweet potato and red radish are hot right now.”

Exempt colors come from other sources, including car-mine, which provides yellow and orange tones thanks to an extract from a South American insect called the cochineal. Spices like turmeric and paprika, and flowers like marigolds provide yellows, oranges and reds. Sometimes a color may provide a health benefit, such as the antioxidant lycopene, which is derived from tomatoes or carrots.

Certification and clarification

While the Food and Drug Administration determined that the Southampton study was not evidence enough for domestic label requirements, the swing toward natural colors has been felt in the United States, said Glen Dreher, global application scientist for beverages at DDW, (formerly D.D. Williamson), Louisville, Ky.
“It is further along in Europe than in the U.S.,” Mr. Dreher said. “But a lot of global companies, with facilities in the U.S. and elsewhere, are moving to natural colors.”

The United States has no definition for natural colors. They are simply made from substances that are already approved for food use, and are therefore exempt from certification. What may be
referred to as synthetic colors, are technically defined as certified colors, and are regulated by the F.D.A. Although they may be made from plant sources they are usually synthesized with a variety of chemicals. Those FD&C (food, drug and cosmetics) colors are identified on food ingredient labels with names like Red Dye No. 40, Yellow No. 5 and Blue No. 1.

Among the exempt colors are caramel colors, produced through maillard reaction — the heating of sugars or starches. This is where DDW, which now refers to itself as The Color House, got its start in natural colors.

For DDW, natural colors are a growing segment around the world. New formulations and new color sources make the colors more stable in a variety of pH levels, production processes, and shipping and merchandising scenarios. Natural colors still require more careful consideration than certified colors, but the work is getting easier, and both suppliers say that as use has increased, prices have come down.

“Natural colors are more difficult to work with,” Mr. Dreher said. “They have their own strengths and weaknesses. For instance, a red cabbage in an acidic, low pH beverage will give you a brilliant red, but in a milk base it will fade.”

Natural colors are generally used in prod-ucts with natural label-ing and to provide a clean label benefit to a variety of products. Suppliers also offer a smaller number of colors that are also acceptable under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Standard.

Blues and greens

The most common hues for clear beverages (including juices, flavored teas and flavored waters) are red, orange and pink. Blue hues and greens are not only less sought after, but they may be more difficult to produce. Chlorophyll is used for greens in Europe, but it is not approved for use in the United States.
Recently DDW, with its partner company ColorMaker, developed new blue and green colors that offer greater shelf stability for beverage makers looking to make a product similar to Vitaminwater’s stur-D. The blue exhibits a variety of hues based on pH, and when combined with yellows, it may produce green hues.

Meanwhile Chr. Hansen was recognized with a Food Ingredients Excellence award during the Food Ingredients Europe trade show this past November for its Red Strawberry Fragaria 100 WS, which is designed for dairy beverages. The panel of judges noted that the color, which is sourced from carmine, has superior process stability enabling a decrease of pigment concentration by 10% to 20% compared to standard carmine.

While much progress has been made in natural colors, there could be a lot more around the corner. The science is working its way back from the beverage makers’ research and development departments to the supplier lab and even to the raw materials in the fields. Cross breeding and other selection and discovery may lead to improved properties and even new sources.

“It’s not like you can cross breed vegetable X and vegetable Y to get a third color,” Mr. Madkins said. “You can do cross breeding in order to do things like elevate the more stable pigments that make up the plant inherently. Also, the same plant sources can have properties that vary significantly from different growing regions.”

For now, Mr. Madkins said, the new blue colors are great for beverages and frozen desserts, but more applications may be on the way.
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