CHICAGO — The color blue, specifically “classic blue,” was identified by Pantone L.L.C., Carlstadt, N.J., as the color of the year for 2020. The provider of professional color language standards explained that classic blue is a “timeless and enduring hue elegant in its simplicity. It highlights the desire for a dependable and stable foundation from which to build as we cross the threshold into a new era.”

In food and beverage, classic blue is suggestive of a high anthocyanin content, according to Pantone. Anthocyanins are flavonoids that function as antioxidants. They are abundant in blue, purple and red fruits. It is no wonder that Firmenich, Geneva, Switzerland, has named “classic blueberry” its flavor of the year for 2020, a flavor the company said provides a sense of comfort.

Anthocyanins are associated with promoting health and wellness, a feature many consumers increasingly seek when selecting beverages. Health and wellness beverages tend to be void of artificial ingredients. When it comes to blue coloring, this may be challenging, as the traditional certified colors — Blue No. 1 and Blue No. 2 — have set a standard for a desirable hue. Many of the “natural” alternatives are unstable in common beverage systems, mainly acidic pH. Producing stable natural blue colors involves extensive research on potential sources.

“Developing a blue color derived from natural sources has been a long-standing industry challenge,” said Maria Jose Alarcon, product experience marketing manager — colors, Archer Daniels Midland Co., Cincinnati. “We offer the industry’s only, and patented, acid-, light- and heat-stable blue color derived from the juice of the huito fruit (genipa Americana), which is sourced from the Amazon region of Peru. The juice makes it possible to achieve various shades of blue, green, purple and brown from a natural source.”

When huito juice is extracted, it is clear. When it comes in contact with amino acids, polypeptides, proteins or other compounds with one or more primary amine groups, the large amounts of genipin compounds that the fruit contains stabilize into a blue color.

Several natural blue colors made from spirulina (Arthrospira platensis), a blue-green algae, have been introduced. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) approved spirulina as a color additive in 2013.

Spirulina contains green chlorophyll and blue phycobilins compounds. The latter is extracted to make natural blue color. While it works well in some applications, spirulina blue is challenged in acidic beverages, where it may fade or precipitate. Spirulina extract functions best at a pH between 4 and 8. It also must be protected from heat and light; therefore, it cannot be used in high-heat processing.

Huito yields a different shade of blue than spirulina. The two may be used together to produce a range of blues, from bright to navy to greyish.

The F.D.A. is reviewing a petition filed by Sensient Colors, St. Louis, in October 2018, for the use of butterfly pea flower (Clitoria ternatea) extract. Like blueberries, the butterfly pea flower contains anthocyanin pigments. It 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.

Another blue color under consideration comes from the gardenia blue (Gardenia jasminoides) plant. The science of its extraction and stabilization is similar to the manufacture of huito juice extract.

While classic blue is expected to garner lots of attention in 2020, the real value of natural blue hues is their ability to blend with other natural colors to produce a greater spectrum of brown shades, as well as yellows, oranges and reds. 

Maintaining color stability

Formulators must remember color is often an assessment of quality by the consumer. They expect consistency and accurate representation of the specified flavor. Colors often are added to offset color loss that may occur during shelf life from exposure to the environment.

“There’s a lot to think about when formulating products using naturally derived colors,” Ms. Alarcon said. “Natural color sources have inherent characteristics that can limit their use as colorants such as low color strength, thermal, light and pH instability, incompatible solubility, organoleptic impact and tendency to oxidize.”

A range of factors, including pH, packaging, base color, processing conditions, temperature and desired shelf life, may impact performance of any food color. Stability varies, and in some instances, naturally derived colors may perform better than the highly economical and efficient certified colors that have been coloring products since the onset of modern food and beverage manufacturing.

“There is still a misconception that using a natural ingredient means that a beverage will be less stable and unable to withstand some of the tougher processing conditions during manufacturing,” said Christiane Lippert, head of marketing — food, Lycored, Orange, N.J. “Our natural color solutions are created with lycopene and beta-carotene, which enable manufacturers to create clean label beverage formulations that replace artificial ingredients without impacting stability. They are resilient and versatile and allow for the creation of unique shades with a finished product shelf life of up to 12 months.”

She explained that clean label fruit and fruit-flavored beverages are trending because of their better-for-you positioning. One of a formulator’s biggest challenges in such beverages is making sure it has an appealing color that matches the flavor.

“Our red shades, in particular, stay true to fruit and represent authentic flavor types, avoiding the neon hues of artificial color ingredients,” she said. “They also outperform many artificial shades in tough dairy processing conditions required for ultra-high temperature-processed beverages.”

Chr. Hansen, Milwaukee, has a new range of clean label red colors based on the company’s proprietary sweet potato, which took more than 10 years of selective breeding using traditional, non-G.M.O. methods to develop. The result is a plant-based red that is a natural alternative to carmine and synthetic colors.

“They are a great replacement to Red No. 40 and have much better stability and sensory attributes than beet or radish,” said Nathan Morrison, associate application specialist.

GNT U.S.A. Inc., Tarrytown, N.Y., now offers an improved range of liquid and powdered red colors that do not contain sugar ingredients. They offer higher color intensities and contain just two raw materials, helping manufacturers achieve shorter, cleaner ingredient lists, said Jeannette O’Brien, vice-president.

“The new reds deliver colors that are 50% more intense, which means they can be used in lower dosages to achieve the same effect, resulting in reduced cost-in-use,” she said.

Ms. Lippert concluded, “Wherever consumers take the market next, the use of effective beverage colorants remains central to developing appealing and innovative drinks that stand out across the segment. Using natural colors is a great way to enhance a beverage’s consumer appeal in today’s market where artificial ingredients are under scrutiny."