CHICAGO — More than three-fourths of new foods and beverages introduced in North America in 2017 used color from natural sources, according to Mintel, Chicago. This large proportion reflects intensifying consumer resistance to products containing artificial colors, which are petroleum-based and require certification by The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (F.D.&C.).

While such cleaner formulations may deliver market share gain and commercial success if executed well, recent consumer research by Sensient Colors L.L.C., St. Louis, showed that sacrificing the color vibrancy provided by artificial colors may hurt a brand. This risk is particularly acute for beverages intended to refresh and rehydrate and sold in clear packaging.

“In our 2017 large-scale consumer retail study, we tested different products to better quantify the value of color in today’s foods and beverages,” said David Gebhardt, technical director at Sensient. “Interestingly, consumers associated greater color intensity with better taste and more flavor in 89% of the tested products, even though zero taste testing was involved.”

The research featured an online quantitative study with more than 1,600 consumers who judged product concepts based on images. The results showed a strong correlation between color shade vibrancy and taste expectations. Because taste expectation is the leading driver of consumer preference, color vibrancy must be considered in the product development process.

“Most notably, our research concluded consumer purchase intent grew as color vibrancy increased,” Mr. Gebhardt said. “Obviously the reverse is also true. Consumers believe products with more vibrant color will taste better, have superior sweetness and are more attractive.”

Regardless of source, food colors should not impact a beverage’s flavor or sweetness. They may, however, interact with other ingredients, which may impact visual appeal. This is particularly true for colors sourced from nature, making it paramount that product developers condust shelf life tests for beverage color stability even beyond a product’s expiration date.


Going natural or organic

Many formulators are exploring the use of natural food colors, as research shows color type may influence consumer perception of the product. Natural food color suggests that a product is healthier.

“Consumers want to understand what they are eating and believe foods and beverages colored with natural colors or with fruit and vegetable juice are healthier,” said Pernille Arskog, marketing manager — natural colors division, Chr. Hansen, Milwaukee.

In response, Chr. Hansen has introduced a range of clean label colors that contain only natural and non-G.M.O. ingredients. They make possible an ingredient declaration such as “vegetable juice (for color)” or a label claim such as “made with ingredients from natural sources.”

The new coloring juices are made according to the principles of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (N.O.P.), allowing them to be used in products labeled organic. They are made without synthetic solvents and are free from preservatives.

Organic-certified colors are becoming more prominent. Sensient is adding to its portfolio of certified organic food color offerings, including black carrot juice, blue vegetable juice, beet juice and annatto.

“Our priority is to expand our certified organic color palette to include as many shade ranges as possible to decrease cost-in-use and achieve target shades for food manufacturers,” said Megan Longhi, technical service manager at Sensient. “In the coming months, these new options will be available, and we have more in our pipeline.”


Overcoming ingredient interactions

While the Sensient consumer research suggests better color may translate to stronger sales, obtaining vibrant color may be challenging with natural colors. The most common issues when formulating beverages with naturally sourced colors involve stability, namely fading, precipitation and ringing.

“Natural colors do not provide a one-size-fits-all solution as F.D.&.C. certified colors mostly do,” Ms. Longhi said. “In the beverage industry, ready-to-drink products are typically the most challenging due to the vastness of beverage bases, as well as the many variances in manufacturing site capabilities, processing and transit parameters.”

Many naturally sourced colors require cold storage to maintain integrity. The opening and closing of storage units increases the chance of product degradation or microbial contamination.

“Our solution to these storage challenges is our customized bib packaging capabilities, which offer beverage manufacturers the option of a single-use system per beverage batch, rather than a multi-use pail or drum container,” Ms. Longhi said.

Ingredient compatibility poses another challenge. Process variations, even minute changes considered acceptable in terms of production, may further impact ingredient interaction.

Depending on the package, bottle cap staining and ringing, as well as equipment staining, may be issues with some naturally sourced colors, in particular, oil-based naturally sourced colors like carotenoids and paprika. The ingredients migrate to oil-loving surfaces, such as items made from plastic, and adhere, creating permanent stains.

“To eliminate these problems, we have developed a double encapsulated advanced emulsion technology that takes the natural oil-loving color and formulates it into a fully water-soluble and homogenous solution, decreasing oil particles, so there is no room for migration or bleeding anywhere,” said Abby Christman, application technologist at Sensient.


Color-, product-specific challenges

Ashlee Martin, senior application scientist at Chr. Hansen, explained how it may be difficult to get a transparent yellow color in some beverages.

“Yellow carrot juice contains beta-carotene, which is an oil-soluble pigment,” she said. “Inherently, carrot juice contains other plant components that keep the naturally occurring beta-carotene pigment in suspension. While these plant components prevent the beta-carotene oil from separating in a beverage, they also make it look cloudy. It is possible to make a transparent yellow beverage with beta-carotene, but that would require additional emulsifiers and processes, neither of which is classified as a minimally processed juice.”

Additional obstacles arise in fortified beverages. As the drinks become complex, the coloring challenges do, too. Even the simplest fortificants, such as vitamins and minerals, may cause undesirable color interactions.

“A growing trend in beverages is fortified drinks with high content of vitamins and minerals,” Ms. Martin said. “Vitamins and minerals can react with the pigment. They may either accelerate the color degradation process, causing fading, or create a complex-binding of pigments and minerals, which may cause precipitation in the final application.”

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in high concentrations is beneficial for avoiding oxidation of carotenes; however, it has the opposite effect on anthocyanin, as it destabilizes the red pigment leading to fading and browning, Ms. Martin said.

Some divalent-ion minerals, such as zinc, may bind with pigments if they are not added at the optimal pH. The complex produces undesirable precipitation in the beverage.

“Others, such as calcium and magnesium, can also complex bind with anthocyanins,” Ms. Martin said. “This leads to faster fading. The same ions, in high concentrations, may destabilize emulsions, create cloudiness and accelerate ring apparition. Such complications can be avoided by using optimal mineral forms or by adding them in the right order.”

Changing colors can be fun in interactive products such as popping candy or an ice cream novelty. But in a beverage, unexpected colors suggest inferior quality, possibly even unsafe product.

“In low-acid, shelf-stable beverages, natural reds may shift to purple or blue and also become less stable,” said Per Pihlsgard, senior beverage specialist, GNT USA Inc., Tarrytown, N.Y. “We recommend picking a vegetable-based color that exhibits stability in a beverage with an elevated pH.”

GNT recently introduced a natural yellow that is a pure turmeric concentrate. It may be used to add a golden hue to dairy- and nut milk-based beverages.

In beverage formulations where opacity is desired, formulators often relied on titanium dioxide. Though it’s not an F.D.&C. certified color, its chemical-sounding name does not suggest natural or clean label.

Sensient recently introduced a simple stable alternative. It is declared as vegetable juice or another botanical source, depending on the version.

“Until now, a stable alternative to titanium dioxide for mid- to high-water activity applications has been absent in the market,” Ms. Longhi said. “This new ingredient remains suspended for maintained opacity without interfering in viscosity, flavor and mouthfeel. For the beverage industry, we have seen great success in powder coffee creamers and powder beverages mixes or drink stick formulations.”