CHICAGO — We eat and drink with our eyes, with color often the first attribute to influence expectation of flavor and even mouthfeel. Consumers may perceive clear yellow to be refreshingly lemon while milky brown is perceived as creamy chocolate.

Shade of color impacts perception. A bright red strawberry yogurt drink suggests it is sweet, maybe like strawberry-flavored candy, while one would expect a muted red color to have a more farm-fresh profile. A deep purple-like blue may represent blueberry whereas a more pastel hue suggests cotton candy.

Color also may be an assessment of quality. Consumers expect consistency and accurate representation of the specified flavor. Beverage formulators use colors to help offset color loss that may occur over shelf life from exposure to the environment.

Sometimes, color is just added for fun. Without colors, colas would not be brown, punch would not be red and lemonade powdered drink mixes would not be yellow.

Color matters, and, in the current beverage market where consumers scrutinize labels and desire minimally processed products, formulators are turning to colors produced from natural sources.

Colorful smoothies

Working with naturals

“It is all about colors from natural sources these days,” said David Rigg, director of global food marketing for Sensient Colors, St. Louis. “Activity is across all beverage types, from sparkling water to craft sodas to dairy drinks.”

Colors from natural sources are typically not as easy to work with as artificial colors, which are identified with the prefix F.D.&C., indicating they are certified for use in foods, drugs and cosmetics. The synthetic colors are made from petroleum and are valued for their consistency, stability and low cost.

“Challenges associated with natural colors generally stem from a misunderstanding of the ingredient category as a whole,” said Jeannette O’Brien, vice-president, sales manager, GNT USA Inc., Tarrytown, N.Y. “When using a fruit or vegetable juice for color, these ingredients need to be treated as a food rather than an additive, which means ingredient interactions and processing conditions need to be taken into consideration.”

One common issue is emulsion stability.

“Broken emulsions have undesirable results, including cap staining, ringing or agglomeration,” Mr. Rigg said.

In some cases, the potential solution may be order of ingredient addition; simply add the color emulsion last. This may reduce the risk of unintended interactions.

Vitamins, too, often are added as an emulsion. Incompatibility can lead to the emulsion breaking.

“It is usually most efficient to address ingredient compatibility early on in the formulation project and work with partners that have expertise in this area,” Mr. Rigg said.

Some colors from natural sources are very reactive to changes in acidity. Exposure to light and temperature fluctuations also may impact color stability.

“The pH of a beverage is one of the greatest influencers in predicting the performance of natural colors,” said Jody Renner-Nantz, applications manager, DDW, The Color House, Louisville, Ky. “While colors based on paprika and beta-carotene can withstand a wide pH range, anthocyanins will appear bright red in sports drinks and vitamin-enhanced waters at a pH around 3.0 but are not stable in near-neutral pH beverages and will fade from blue to grey to colorless.”

Butterfly pea lemonade

Considering new colorful options

Color suppliers continue to explore new natural sources of colors, as well as technologies to extract, purify, concentrate and stabilize them. In October 2018, Sensient Colors filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) to add a unique variety of butterfly pea extract to the list of approved color additives.

“This novel butterfly pea extract provides a bright, clean purple shade that is ideal for grape- and berry-flavored beverages in the low pH range and a denim-blue shade above and around pH 3.8,” Mr. Rigg said.

DDW recently introduced a new natural red color derived from a non-genetically modified purple corn hybrid cultivated in the United States. Produced using a water extraction process, it delivers a vibrant red hue, with a clean, neutral taste, said Ms. Renner-Nantz. It may be used as an alternative to F.D.&C. Red 40 and has application in juice drinks, energy/sports drinks, enhanced waters and certain yogurt beverages.

While DDW offers a full portfolio of caramel colors, including Class I’s, burnt sugars and low 4-Mel options in liquid and powdered versions, the company also offers brown colors manufactured from natural fruit and vegetable sources.

Red soda“Our brown products may be used in place of caramel color or F.D.&.C. brown blends in many beverage applications,” Ms. Renner-Nantz said. “These brown products are created through a simple cooking process from fruit and vegetable juice concentrates such as pear, apple, tomato, onion and vegetable blends.”

Food Ingredient Solutions L.L.C., Teterboro, N.J., will soon be introducing a diacylated anthocyanin-type fruit juice color that has no off flavor and is similar in shade to F.D.&.C. Red 40, according to the company.

“This will offer another option to red radish color, which sometimes has an off aroma that can accumulate in a beverage headspace, particularly in carbonated beverages,” said Jeff Greaves, president.

Ashlee Martin, senior application scientist — natural colors division, Chr. Hansen, Milwaukee, said, “As consumers continue to request more transparency in their foods and beverages, we have been working to help our customers convert to minimally processed colors.”

While a growing number of beverage manufacturers prefer colors sourced from minimally processed fruits and vegetables, there are some shades that are difficult to obtain.

“It can be difficult to get a transparent yellow color, for example, as the available pigment would be a yellow carrot juice,” Ms. Martin said. “This juice contains beta-carotene, which is an oil-soluble pigment. 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 out in a beverage, they also make it look cloudy. It is possible to make a transparent yellow beverage with beta-carotenes, but that would require additional emulsifiers and processes, neither of which is classified as a minimally processed juice.”

Caramel color in cola

Navigating caramel colors

Brown is a common color in many soft drinks, namely colas and energy beverages, as well as chocolate-flavored protein drinks. Manufacturers typically rely on caramel colors, which are produced through the controlled heat treatment or cooking of carbohydrates, a process known as caramelization.

There are four classes of caramel color, based on production method. Some discerning consumers may be concerned with the chemical 4-Methylimidazole (4-Mel), which forms naturally during the production of Class III and Class IV caramel colors. While there has been an industry shift to use Class I caramel color in efforts to eliminate 4-Mel, all classes of caramel color are simply labeled “caramel color” or “caramel” on ingredient statements.

In California, there are additional labeling requirements. California’s Proposition 65 law requires companies to call out specific names of potentially harmful chemicals, such as 4-Mel, and add a warning symbol on the product if they exceed acceptable levels. For 4-Mel, this is 29 micrograms per day.

To assist with not exceeding this limit, Food Chemical Codex (F.C.C.), an international food safety organization, recently established a new maximum limit of 125 p.p.m. of detectable 4-MeI in caramel color on a 0.1 color intensity basis. The limit went into effect on Dec. 1, 2018, and did require some caramel colors to be pulled from the U.S. market.

Cola splashSuppliers such as Sethness Products Co., Skokie, Ill., anticipated the revision. During the past two years the company developed replacement caramel colors for 12 of the products in its portfolio of more than 80 that the company may no longer manufacture due to the F.C.C.’s lower 4-Mel limits.

“The goal was to have replacement caramel colors that were virtually identical to — with the exception of the lower 4-MeI value — the colors being discontinued,” said Brian Sethness, executive vice-president of sales and marketing. “We have been very successful in achieving that goal and these caramel colors are readily available.”

Another new caramel color addresses consumer concerns with genetically modified ingredients. This is because the most common source of carbohydrate for making caramel colors comes from corn, a crop that has been mostly genetically modified.

“We have new liquid and powder Class IV Non-G.M.O. Project Verified caramel colors,” Mr. Sethness said. “These are more expensive offerings than our typical caramel colors, but consumers — especially on the West coast — like to see ‘the butterfly seal’ on product labels.”

As when adding any color to a beverage, formulators may encounter issues with stability.

“The most common problem when incorporating caramel colors is the formation of a precipitate, which can range from a haze to settled solids,” Mr. Sethness said. “The precipitate may form immediately or over time, with slowly forming precipitates being the most difficult to deal with.”

The four classes of caramel color each have a distinct ionic charge, making them applicable for specific beverages attributes. Dairy drinks require color that does interact with milk proteins and remains in suspension.