CHICAGO — The US Food and Drug Administration regulates edible colorants and classifies them as either “certified colors,” also known as artificial colors, or “colors exempt from certification,” which by default has come to mean natural colors. But not all natural colors are created equal, and US food and beverage marketers are taking it upon themselves to communicate the differences, something European Union regulations require.

In the EU, there are two separate categories of natural colors: non-artificial additive colors and coloring foods. The former requires an E number and is defined as pigment extracted from natural or nature-identical sources.

“These colors do not always meet with consumer expectations around naturality,” said Alice Lee, technical marketing manager, GNT USA, LLC, Dallas, NC. “Carmine, for example, is considered a natural color but is produced from the inedible cochineal insect.

“The category of ‘coloring foods,’ on the other hand, must be created from edible fruits, vegetables or plants and processed using only water and physical methods, such as chopping and pressing. They are actually food concentrates that can be eaten by the spoonful. In the EU, and various countries worldwide, coloring foods are labeled as food ingredients, such as ‘carrot and beetroot concentrate,’ with no E numbers required.”

In addition to differentiating natural colors by their source, even those sources are not always consistent. After all, fruits, vegetables and other plants are living things. Environment impacts color development during growth, and after harvest, processing and storage affects hue. Further, many natural colors are unstable when exposed to high temperatures, pH changes and light, before and after being added to a food or beverage, and then throughout the product’s shelf life.

“Naturally derived colors can sometimes impart off-flavors and unwanted aromas,” said Kelly Newsome, senior marketing manager - colors, ADM, Chicago. “We overcome this with our deodorized and masking technologies, as well as our patented extraction technology. This technology not only eliminates off-notes but also removes starches, sugars and proteins to produce true hues that can withstand even the most challenging processing conditions.”

While the FDA does not differentiate between the types of natural colors like the EU, there are labeling advantages when using colors from foods.

“When foods are labeled as ‘fruit and vegetable juice for color’ or ‘turmeric (color),’ consumers can instantly trust the naturalness of the ingredient,” Ms. Lee said. “Based on the principle of coloring food with food, our range contains more than 400 plant-based concentrates, which allows us to offer a full rainbow of radiant shades.”

Evaluating options in natural colors includes assessing the different production practices used by farmers and suppliers. After all, if colors come from fruits, vegetables and plants, what happens to any waste that may be generated? Suppliers are investing in circle economy production practices to make the colors more sustainable, something marketers may communicate to customers.

“Some of the measures we’ve introduced to boost sustainability include using natural selective breeding programs to intensify the color of our crops, adopting solar panels and converting our production sites to renewable energy sources,” Ms. Lee said. “In 2019, we launched an updated portfolio of red shades with 50% more color intensity as well as a high-intensity spirulina powder that has a color concentration that is nine times higher than the standard spirulina color.”

GNT’s raw materials are grown by farmers in its vertically integrated supply chain. The company is targeting to have at least 75% of its side streams remain within the human food chain by 2030.

“At the moment, we use the majority of our side streams for animal feed, but we’re exploring a number of exciting options to significantly increase circularity in the coming years,” Ms. Lee said.

Lycored, Somerville, NJ, grows its own tomatoes on farms around the world to create its lycopene portfolio of red colors.

“Our red tomatoes begin their journey as seeds in greenhouses to encourage the healthiest start for the plants, which results in minimal waste out in the fields,” said Jennifer Elegbede, global applications manager at Lycored. “Once ready, the plants are moved to the fields to grow until maturity, when they are harvested with zero tomato waste. Seeds and stems of Lycored tomatoes are sold for animal feed, while the rest of the tomato is utilized to create our star tomato portfolio, which includes but is not limited to colors.”

Garden-variety fruits and vegetables are not stable or cost-effective as natural color sources, said Susan Frecker, senior application scientist, Oterra, Milwaukee. The company has a vertically integrated source of plants developed using sustainable, conventional breeding methods to create the most vibrant and stable colors.

“The Hansen sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), for example, is the industry’s first vegetable specially developed for its unique coloring properties,” Ms. Frecker said. “Over 10 years ago, the Oterra sourcing team discovered a small tuber with great color, but the pigment load was low. An ambitious non-GMO breeding program was initiated, and the best characteristics were selected from each subsequent generation until the new variety was ready to plant commercially. The result is a plant-based, brilliant red and a natural alternative to carmine.”

IFF Nourish, Neuilly-Sur-Seine Cedex France, has created sustainable partnerships in Latin America and works with farmers that grow achiote trees. The trees produce oily seeds containing annatto, which allows for production of natural yellow to orange hues. The company provides training to farmers on everything from how to save water and when to harvest for maximum yield, to how to separate the seed efficiently.

“Farmers already knew annatto; we taught them how to optimize,” said Mathilde Brousse, natural colors solutions product leader. “Our advanced extraction of the seeds enables recovery of high-antioxidant vitamin E while significantly minimizing fruit waste. On top of that, after extraction, the used seed is not thrown away. We sell it to poultry producers who use it as feed.”