Clear packaging is highly desirable, but some colors, natural and synthetic, do not perform well when exposed to light.

Though thirst and hydration, maybe nutrition, and sometimes celebration, may motivate consumers to drink a beverage, color often influences selection. Appropriate colors reassure the consumer that the beverage will taste as described. Faded hues and discoloration are unacceptable.

“From cola to cognac, iced tea to isotonics, root beer to real beer, color additives — natural or artificial — contribute to the consumer’s enjoyment,” said Jody Renner-Nantz, senior application scientist with DDW The Color House, Louisville, Ky. “There are many factors to consider when selecting color additives, including packaging, shelf life, pH and ingredients that can interact with colors. For example, the same coloring may show one hue in a neutral system and another hue in an acidic system.”

Coloring beverages is never one-size-fits-all. Even the least-suspecting variables, including water source (mineral content), may impact the finished product’s color.

“Most water-based beverages are quite acidic with varying sugar contents, from sugar rich to sugar free,” said Tamara Higgins, global natural colors marketing manager, FMC Health and Nutrition, Philadelphia. “The main challenge to coloring such beverages is stability of the pigment in a low-pH water-rich system that typically requires a 12-month shelf life at room temperature and in the light.”

Mary Bentley, senior vice-president of color sales and commercial development for Chr. Hansen’s Natural Colors Division, Milwaukee, said, “Some of the most challenging beverages to color are fortified ones, like sports and nutritional drinks. One of the key difficulties in dyeing these, with either natural or synthetic colors, is the presence of interactive ingredients, such as vitamins, in particular ascorbic acid, minerals and added flavors. These compounds can all negatively interact with added color.”

For example, at levels greater than 100 parts per million (p.p.m.), ascorbic acid may degrade anthocyanins, which are natural red and purple pigments derived from sources such as purple carrots, elderberries and sweet potatoes, Ms. Bentley said.

“However, some interactive ingredients can have positive effects,” he said. “For example, many carotenoids, including beta carotene, are normally subject to oxidation and are actually stabilized by the addition of ascorbic acid at levels greater than 200 p.p.m.”

Another challenge is highly concentrated beverage systems.

“Beverage concentrates often have a very low pH due to high citric acid content,” said Carol Locey, director of product management-colors, Kalsec, Kalamazoo, Mich. “Improved emulsification systems need to be developed to address this problem.”

Processing may significantly impact color stability, too.

“Red #40 is not heat stable and therefore will not perform well in beverages that require pasteurization,” said Emina Goodman, technical support manager for the beverage and dairy group, Sensient Colors L.L.C., St. Louis. “Sometimes adding the colorant after the heat portion of the process could overcome this challenge.”

Some carotenoids, such as beta carotene and paprika, are oil-based and require emulsification or encapsulation to make them suitable for coloring water-based beverages.

“The way a beverage is processed can potentially disrupt this color formulation, releasing the oil-based color and cause ringing, bottle staining or loss of color,” Ms. Bentley said.

Because seeing is believing, clear packaging is highly desirable in the food and beverage industry, but some colors, natural and synthetic, do not perform well when exposed to light.

“For example, Red #3 and turmeric are both light sensitive and will fade if packaged in a clear container,” Ms. Goodman said.

There are antioxidant systems that may be formulated with some natural pigments to improve light stability in order to achieve 6- to 12-month shelf life, Ms. Higgins said. Another option is to upgrade the clear glass or plastic to include ultraviolet light blockers.

Caramel color is the most widely used color in the beverage industry, primarily due to its use in colas.

The challenges of going natural

As mentioned, with both natural and synthetic colors, there are considerations involved with selection. However, for the most part, synthetic colors are more stable then natural colors. Yet, similar to other food categories, there’s a growing trend to clean up ingredient labels on beverages. Less is more and eliminating everything perceived as artificial paramount.

“In Europe, more than 85% of beverages previously colored with synthetics now use naturally derived pigments,” Ms. Locey said. “This conversion has not yet occurred in the U.S., where only 1% of beverages are colored using naturally derived colors. We believe that the U.S. market will convert to naturals but the timing of the start of this conversion is unknown. However, many manufacturers are already starting to formulate new products with natural colors.”

Some of the resistance in replacing synthetics with naturally sourced colors is economics. But in beverages, the price differential between using natural and artificial colors is nominal, said Jeff Greaves, president of Food Ingredient Solutions L.L.C., Teterboro, N.J.

“In general, natural colors are 10 to 20 times the cost of synthetic colors, but some can be just a few times the cost, such as annatto compared to Yellow #5,” he said. “Because color usage level in beverages is really quite low, usually in the 0.01% to 0.03% range, even for naturally derived colors, impact on cost is not great.”

Ms. Higgins said that premium pricing of natural colors is less of an issue today than it has been in the past.

“Colors houses have continued to cultivate more diverse natural color sources, making it easier to find affordable alternatives even for particularly cost-sensitive manufacturers,” she said. “In our work with customers, we’re usually able to identify a natural color alternative with acceptable hue vibrancy and stability at or below the customer’s cost-in-use expectation. Even for those instances when the natural solution comes at a higher cost, it still only translates into a minor price increase to the final product, a few cents at most. Most manufacturers are able to absorb that minimal cost increase in favor of the benefits that a natural label affords.

“If a proposed solution does not come in under that cost, then we explain why. In most cases, the vibrancy or stability advantages that higher-cost solutions offer for particular applications are worth minor increases in the cost to produce the on-the-shelf product. We find it valuable to put the cost into context.”

Because consumers have cost and color expectations of longtime brands, there is resistance to reformulate with natural colors. Formulating new products with natural colors is a lot different than changing from synthetic to natural, as often achieving the same vibrant hue is not possible.

“Natural green and blue are the most difficult to obtain in beverages,” Mr. Greaves said. “Spirulina was recently approved for powdered beverages, so we have blue and green options for this application, but spirulina will not work in acidified ready-to-drink beverages because it is a protein. We are hoping to see our 2006 copper chlorophyllin petition approved this year, which will provide a stable green for kiwi, mint, apple and more. Blue remains a ways off until some petitions are approved for gardenia blue or similar.”

Some recent naturally derived color options are spray-dried, odorless paprika for orange juice drinks and orange powdered beverages, Mr. Greaves said.

“There are also new lycopene dispersions to provide kosher red colors in the dairy to neutral-pH range and curcumin dispersions with improved light stability for grapefruit, lemonade and pineapple juice drinks,” he said. “And we recently introduced beta carotene, apocarotenal, canthaxanthin, lycopene and carrot emulsions with enhanced stability and clarity.”

Chr. Hansen has a new generation of microencapsulated pigments that create red, orange and yellow shades using annatto and beta carotene.

“These colors offer improved light, heat and pH stability in juice-based drinks,” Ms. Bentley said. “In addition, they provide more intense colors in smaller quantities than traditionally used, which can lead to drastic cost savings for beverage manufacturers.

“We also recently developed a range of transparent color emulsions that do not contain polysorbate-80, a synthetic emulsifier. These colors provide a clean label alternative for transparent orange and yellow when compared to traditional naturally derived colors in these shades.”

Indeed, an added challenge for beverages colored with yellow and orange natural pigments is precipitation, which results in an unattractive staining ring.

“We’ve developed the technical ability to take oil-soluble beta carotene and make it into a water-soluble color with a 9- to 12-month shelf life,” Ms. Higgins said.

This emulsion system prevents neck ring from developing.

Kalsec offers both clear and cloudy emulsion formulations of carrot and paprika for use in beverages. The colorants exhibit high stability and are resistant to ringing in commercial products.

Natural reds and purples have their own set of troubles.

“Anthocyanins are often used for red in sugar-sweetened beverages but they’re only suitable in acidic pH (low pH) systems,” Ms. Higgins said. “In a red dairy beverage, they would yield a more purple color, which will likely go to gray and form a precipitate.

“Beet root and lycopene exhibit a red color at neutral pH, making them an alternative for dairy applications. However, they lack heat stability, and their interaction with the fat of the dairy system can cause a shade change from red to orange.”

To solve this challenge, the company recently developed a nature-identical beta carotene that is uniquely suited to provide red to ultra-high temperature-processed dairy beverages.

Chr. Hansen has a new high-stability red color sourced from a newly commercialized vegetable source.

“This anthocyanin-based red offers an excellent replacement for Red #40 by providing a true yellowish-red shade in applications at low pH,” Ms. Bentley said. “We’ve demonstrated that the color is at least 30% more stable than the current vegetable-based anthocyanins on the market. There are no off characteristics, and it has a competitive cost-in-use in application.”

Caramel color, the most widely used color in the beverage industry, primarily due to its use in colas, may be tricky, too.

“The low pH of cola and other brown-colored carbonated beverages dictates the use of Class IV caramel color due to its acid stability,” said Brian Sethness, senior account executive, Sethness Products Co., Skokie, Ill. “In addition to providing excellent reddish to brown hues, caramel color can enhance the foaming characteristics, mouthfeel and flavor of soft drinks.”

The key to coloring beverages with caramel color is to choose the correct class, of which there are four, and all with different ionic properties.

“If the incorrect class of caramel color is used, there can be precipitation,” Mr. Sethness said. “Strong acid beverages must use caramel colors that are stable with strong acids.”

In recent years, caramel color has come under scrutiny, most notably in California. Just more than two years ago, the State of California amended Proposition 65 to now require any food or beverage sold in the state that exposes consumers to more than 29 micrograms of the potentially carcinogenic chemical called 4-methylimidazole (4-Mel), which is found in some caramel colors, to carry a health warning label.

“This required the development of numerous new caramel colors that meet the Prop 65 regulation while still functioning in the final product,” Mr. Sethness said. “In response, we developed both Class III and Class IV liquid and powder products to meet our customers’ needs while maintaining low 4-MeI levels.”

The low 4-MeI requirement accelerated the use of Class I caramel colors, which do not contain 4-MeI, Mr. Sethness said.

“However, Class I products are lower in color, higher in hue and do not function in all applications,” he said.

In response to growing consumer demand for food offerings featuring non-genetically modified organisms, Sethness recently developed a non-G.M.O. Class I caramel color.

In conclusion, Toni Barrale, a content marketing specialist with Sensient, stated that numerous studies show color has at least, if not more influence on consumer preference over flavor.

“Color is a critical part of consumer beverage enjoyment,” she said. “Today’s consumers, notably millennials, are demanding beverages be made with naturally sourced colors.”