The Healthy Beverage Expo took place at the end of May in Long Beach, Calif. Beverage industry professionals came together to explore the booming category of better-for-you beverages in an effort to get a grasp on just what “healthy” means to the consumer.

Unlike the term “natural,” which the Food and Drug Administration has yet to define, the agency is very precise about foods and beverages that may be described as healthy. Simply, the product must meet specified conditions for fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and select nutrients.

For a growing number of consumers, there are other criteria they look for in a healthy beverage. This includes the absence of artificial ingredients. After all, healthy is perceived as being about better-for-you, which eliminates the use of anything considered fake.

The number of American consumers who consider healthfulness when purchasing their food and beverages has shown an uptick in the past two years, according to findings from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2014 Food and Health Survey. While taste and price consistently have been the two factors affecting consumers’ food and beverage purchases (90% and 73%, respectively), healthfulness in 2014 almost entirely closed the gap with price, rising from 61% of consumers in 2012 to 71% this year, a 10 percentage-point increase.

Healthfulness has grown to be synonymous with clean label, an ambiguous term in its own right. To some, it is the naturalness of the food, including the absence of artificial ingredients. For others, it is products made with easy-to-understand ingredients.

Twenty-three per cent of consumers consider the chemicals in food or packaging when evaluating the healthfulness and safety of a food, according to the IFIC survey. Eight per cent consider unfamiliar ingredients. The survey identified specific ingredients consumers consider when making purchases. Nearly one-fourth (24%) indicated that food colors are part of their purchase-decision criteria, with 21% of respondents indicating they are trying to avoid or limit food colors entirely.

Because we eat with our eyes first, the color of food is also an important purchase criteria. Thus, most healthy beverage manufacturers will agree that synthetic colors should not be part of the formulation. This was apparent at the Healthy Beverage Expo, where most beverages making their marketplace debut were promoting the fact they “do not contain any artificial colors.”

Clean label and colors

Colors perceived as synthetic are just one part of the clean label phenomenon, as many so-called natural colors are under fire by consumer groups and being singled out as being anything but healthy. Further, even though the F.D.A. does not define natural, the agency has stated that it does not object to use of the term if the food does not contain “added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.” In other words, if a product contains added color, it cannot be called natural.

One may assume that healthy should be natural, but because the F.D.A. does not consider any color added to a food as being natural unless the color is natural to the product itself, natural and healthy cannot be one and the same when it comes to color, as many healthy beverages require the use of color to communicate flavor. Consumers expect a grape-flavored vitamin-enhanced isotonic beverage to be purple and a strawberry smoothie to have a red hue. This is where the concept of clean label color enters the picture.

All ingredients used to color foods and beverages must be approved by the F.D.A. as food additives. There are two categories of food color additives: certified and exempt from certification.

Certified colors are petroleum-based ingredients and are considered synthetic, or manmade. In the United States, there are seven such color additives subject to certification, all of which are identified by a number indicating that the additive has been tested for safety and is approved for use in foods, drugs and cosmetics, or F.D.&C. Most beverage industry professionals would agree that the seven certified colors are not natural and are not considered appropriate for clean label applications.

Synthetic food colorings have been the subject of controversy since the 1970s, when a pediatrician first suggested a correlation of intake to children’s behavior. They came under greater scrutiny in September 2007 after the results of a British study from the University of Southampton showed a correlation between artificial food colors and exacerbated hyperactive behavior in children. Even though other medical experts have questioned the study’s protocol, it stirred consumer concern and continues to do so.

Since the Southampton study, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (C.S.P.I.), Washington, has taken the position that all synthetic food colors should be banned in the United States. The reality is C.S.P.I. is not a fan of any food colorings. The nonprofit group believes all colorings deceptively enhance the visual attractiveness of foods and beverages.

Some color under greater scrutiny

In the past year, researchers at Purdue University have published two articles in the journal Clinical Pediatrics. The first, “Amounts of artificial food colors in commonly consumed beverages and potential behavioral implications for consumption in children,” was published in September 2013 and was the first study to quantify the amounts of artificial food colors in beverages commonly consumed by children in the United States. More recently, the April 2014 issue included a report entitled “Amounts of artificial food dyes and added sugars in foods and sweets commonly consumed by children.”

The Purdue researchers noted that one of the largest sources of artificial dyes in the American diet is beverages. They found what they described as high levels of dyes in 8-oz servings of some, including 18.8 mg in Full Throttle Red Berry energy drink, 22.1 mg in Powerade Orange Sports Drink, 33.6 mg in Crush Orange, 41.5 mg in Sunny D Orange Strawberry and 52.3 mg per serving in Kool-Aid Burst Cherry.

According to the Purdue researchers, the amount of artificial food dye certified for use by the F.D.A. has increased five-fold, per capita, between 1950 and 2012. The researchers estimate that a child may easily consume 100 mg of dyes in a day and that some children could consume more than 200 mg per day.

Sorting out exempt colors

Beverage formulators who want to color products without the use of synthetic colors turn to those not certified with an F.D.&C. number, which are by default often described as natural colors. One may make the jump to say they are clean label, too. But that’s not the case.

Colors exempt from certification are obtained from a variety of sources, including plants, minerals, insects and fermentation, resources considered by many to be natural. It is this generalization that has some consumer groups raising concern about certain so-called natural food colors. For example, carmine is sourced from insects and titanium dioxide is crystallized from mineral ore. Such sourcing does not resonate well with some healthy foods enthusiasts.

The same is true of the so-called natural color known as caramel color, as some versions, of which there are four, contain a potentially carcinogenic chemical called 4-methylimidazole. The four different classes exist based on the means of manufacture and the individual physical properties. Many beverage applications benefit from some brown color, and caramel color historically has been the go-to for natural brown. Because all four classes are simply declared as “caramel color” on ingredient statements, healthy beverage manufacturers are seeking alternative browns that offer a cleaner label.

A growing number of beverage brands are turning to colors obtained from fruits and vegetables, as these ingredients appeal to discerning label-reading consumers. They are recognizable and consumers understand their origins.

When using such colors, various labeling opportunities exist to communicate and reassure the consumer that synthetic and other questionable colors are not being used. The ingredient statement provides the most direct opportunity to communicate. Fruit and vegetable juice colors are typically labeled as “fruit and vegetable juice (for color).” When listed this way, a natural claim, as it relates to colors, becomes unimportant, as the consumer reading the ingredient statement recognizes the naturalness, as well as healthfulness of the fruit or vegetable color ingredient.

This is exemplified in two recently introduced healthy beverages. New York-based Maternal Science USA has developed the Healthy Mama Boost it Up! ready-to-drink protein beverage for pregnant or nursing women. The energy and anti-nausea drink is rich in protein, B vitamins, ginger, electrolytes and fiber, providing a nutrient-packed way to stay hydrated. The mango flavor uses beta carotene for color.

Juice-based Youthy Forever, New York, is marketed as a healthy beverage based on pear, pineapple, passion fruit and prickly pear juices. Each 8-oz serving contains 30 mg of resveratrol and 40 mg of grape seed extract for heart health and anti-aging. The ingredient statement indicates that fruit and vegetable juice is added for color.

Obi Probiotic Soda, Santa Cruz, Calif., is a new concept in healthy soda. The product contains 30 beneficial yeast and bacteria cultures and is sweetened with stevia. Fruit juice provides the sodas with flavor, color and sweetness.

Front-of-label claims are a little more challenging, because in the United States, as previously mentioned, the term natural may not be used to describe any color additive unless the additive is natural to the application. An example would be if strawberry juice were used to color strawberry milk. However, when using color ingredients sourced from fruits and vegetables, a front-of-pack claim such as “colored with fruits and vegetables” is possible.

Important considerations when working with fruit and vegetable colors include heat and light stability, pH, ingredient interactions, packaging and desired shelf life. Further, not all colors are created equal. How the supplier grows, manages and processes the raw materials affects the color quality and its performance.

In conclusion, consumers likely will grow to expect clean label colors in their better-for-you beverages, a business that is booming and will continue to grow, said Jonas Feliciano, beverages analyst, Euromonitor International.

“Health and wellness beverages — whether categorized as naturally healthy, fortified/functional, better-for-you or organic — continue to reach new heights in the U.S. market, eclipsing the $64 billion mark in 2013,” he said. “Consumer demand for naturally healthy and organic beverages has surged in recent years, and the demand for transparency will continue, underscoring the need for beverage manufacturers to clean up their labels and produce beverages that are both refreshing and healthy.”

This includes using clean label colors.