CHICAGO — Imagine a world without color. Now think about how a sunny, blue sky motivates while a gloomy gray day may make you yawn. Consumers identify with colors every day, with many having learned responses and expectations to specific hues.
When it comes to beverages, consumers typically associate specific colors with flavor expectations. Lime should be green, while lemon is yellow. Orange is orange, or maybe not. A blood orange beverage will have a reddish shade while mandarin skews yellow.
Color influences not only the perception of taste, but quality and preference, too. Color psychology plays a role in an individual’s instinctual response to a product. For example, the color yellow is associated with increasing energy, while white, such as milk, may have a calming effect. Such clear beverages as water suggest a cool, refreshing experience. This is why it is paramount for beverage manufacturers to consider color as much as they deliberate flavor and nutrition platforms when developing new products.
“In many ways, color is more important than the actual flavor with beverages,” said Emina Goodman, beverage and dairy technical service manager, Sensient Colors, a division of Sensient Technologies, and based in St. Louis. “Our research indicates consumer preference for natural beverages, in particular, is highly influenced by color with bolder purples, reds and oranges really holding a lot of appeal. This is most likely because consumers connect these specific colors with those found in nature or their local grocer’s produce section.”
Strategies for adding color
Beverage formulators add color for many reasons. For one, color adds authenticity, which is why many naturally flavored waters have slight hints of color. Without the color, consumers may question the source of flavor and discredit its naturalness, even though flavor and color ingredients are independent of each other.
“Colored waters are a big growth area, largely due to the expected naturalness and cleansing positioning of that category,” said Christiane Lippert, head of marketing — food, Lycored, Aylesford, the United Kingdom. “Health and naturalness are particularly powerful influencers of choice in the beverage category. Milk drinks, for example, are recognized by consumers as both natural and healthy, so it’s important not only that they contain natural ingredients, but also — given that color sends powerful visual cues about nutritional value — that they look natural.
“Across the world, consumers are sending a powerful message to manufacturers that they want the colors in their food and drink products to be natural. The trend is expected to continue well into the future, with more and more manufacturers keeping pace with customer preference by swapping artificial colors for natural alternatives.”
A consumer’s perception of natural is important, as is quality, and for many consumers, color is an assessment of quality, with consistent color helping to ensure brand integrity. For others, color appeals to emotions.
In some cases, a green pressed juice likely will be more appealing to a wellness-driven consumer looking for a vegetable cleanse than a cotton candy blue smoothie. But sometimes that green pressed juice needs a boost of color to make it visually appealing. That is where color additives come into play.
In addition to building flavor expectation and being suggestive of content, beverage formulators use color additives to enhance or correct variation in colors that naturally occur in ingredients used in beverages, such as in the green pressed juice. Color additives also help offset color loss that may occur over shelf life from exposure to the environment. And sometimes, color is just added for fun. Without color additives, for example, colas wouldn’t be brown, punch would not be red and lemonade powdered drink mixes would not be yellow.
Manmade vs. sourced from nature
The Food and Drug Administration’s permitted colors are classified as “certified” or “exempt from certification,” with the latter also often considered natural or described as sourced from nature. In general, certified colors are man-made and therefore considered synthetic. They impart intense, uniform color and also easily blend into an infinite range of hues. Synthetic colors also are typically longer-lasting than natural ones.
Colors exempt from certification include pigments derived from fruits, vegetables, minerals and even animals. They are generally not as stable as synthetic colors, often having sensitivities to changes in pH, temperature and light. And because they are “real,” they cost more. Use levels are typically higher, which further drives up cost. Depending on source, as well as extraction and purification process, they may add unintended flavor to the application.
“Market research shows that consumers taste with their eyes so color directly impacts how a product is perceived,” said Brad Hayhoe, product manager, BASF Nutrition & Health, Florham Park, N.J. “This phenomenon, combined with consumers’ growing desire for simpler labels, is driving color innovations.”
Colors from plants include anthocyanins, which may come from blueberries, purple carrots and red cabbage. They provide strong red to purple and blue hues. Betalains come from beet juice and produce deep red to purple colors, and carotenoids are derived from roots and spices, such as paprika and saffron, to create yellow to orange hues. Spirulina comes from blue-green algae and provides various natural blue color, while chlorophyll is extracted from a range of plants and creates a range of green hues.
Other colors from nature include carmine, which is derived from insects and produces a deep, strong, wine red color. It is stable to heat, light and pH, but because of its animal derivation, is neither kosher nor vegan. Titanium dioxide is derived from mineral oxides and creates a bright white color, which adds opacity. Brown caramel colors are produced through the controlled heat treatment or cooking of carbohydrates, a process known as caramelization.