Throughout history, humans have enhanced food and drink with colour, but it was not until about a century ago that chemicals were used in the process. Before then, enriching the colour of food was very much accomplished with the help of nature.
In ancient times, saffron was used to deepen the yellow in delicacies. Paprika, turmeric, beet extract and flower petals were also frequently used to make food vibrant and appealing. As far back as the 1800s, natural food dyes were still being used exclusively, but in some cases, even those ingredients posed risks to humans.
For example, bread was made whiter with the use of chalk and the colour of candy was deepened using mercury-loaded vermillion and copper-rich blue vitriol.
By the turn of the century, synthetic dyes were being manufactured out of coal tar and petrochemicals. Coal tar and petrochemicals are the sources of the dyes in many of the foods and beverages that are part of our daily diets today.
Of late, allergic reactions, intestinal tumours, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and even cancer have all been cited by medical researchers and consumer advocacy groups as by-products of a diet heavy in synthetic colours.
Shifting Market Trends
Food colourants are part of the larger food additives market, which was estimated to be worth over US$25 billion in 2011. Colourants are added in foods and beverages to impart a desired shade of colour, improve its visual perception and provide certain health benefits for the consumers. The global consumption of food colourants, estimated at 49.6 kilo tonnes in 2012, is expected to grow at a CAGR of 3.8 percent from 2013 to 2018.
Increasing consumption of processed and frozen foods, especially in the Asia Pacific and Latin America, and new applications in baked foods, confectioneries, beers and other alcoholic beverages are expected to drive colourant demand over the next five years.
Although synthetic colours have traditionally dominated the market, growing consumer demand for natural ingredients such as lycopene, beta carotene, lutein and curcumin is expected to be the major market trend in the coming years.
Food colouring is used in practically all processed foods today, from jams and jellies to beverages and confectionery. As popular as it may be, however, it has always been riddled with controversy primarily with regards to health and safety. The food industry has recently seen a shift to ‘natural’ colouring in hopes of countering the health concerns surrounding artificial food colouring.
The natural switch is gaining more attention given the recent spotlight on the negative side effects of synthetic colourants. While suppliers have been able to offer more cost-effective natural colourants, manufacturers need to use them effectively to satisfy consumer demand.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently voted against label changes for food products with artificial colours. On the other side of the continent, Europe has made a bold move towards protecting kids from the harmful effects of artificial food colouring.
Since 2010, the European Union (EU) has made it mandatory to carry a warning label for foods and drinks containing six artificial food colourings linked to hyperactivity in children. The colours are Tartrazine (E102), Quinoline Yellow (E104), Sunset Yellow (E110), Carmoisine (E122), Ponceau 4R (E124) and Allura Red (E129).
These colours are used around the world in products such as breakfast cereal, toothpaste, vitamins, candy, fruit drinks, lunch meats, medicines and just about any food available.
Despite much debate, consumers’ general desire for all things natural is driving manufacturers away from synthetic colours. Their concern about artificial colours has increased and in 2011, 92 percent of consumers surveyed across ten countries by market research firm Nielsen said they were concerned about artificial colours, and more than three quarters (78 percent) said they would be willing to pay a premium for naturally coloured foods.
However, there are still some big hurdles for manufacturers looking to replace synthetic colours with natural equivalents. The challenge is to identify a wide variety of natural colours, and successfully integrate them into food products without compromising on visual appearance, quality, taste, flavour and safety.
Natural Vs Artificial
Artificial food colouring agents, or colour additives, are substances that are added to foods to offset colour loss due to processing, correct natural colour variations, enhance naturally occurring colours or make foods more visually appealing.
The primary components of natural food colouring are found in anthocyanins present in various fruits and vegetables. These are used widely to create a range of shades from pink right through to a deep violet.
The range of raw materials used in producing anthocyanins is vast, but some of the more popular natural sources include purple sweet potato, red cabbage, black carrot, purple carrot, red beet, grape skin extract, elderberry and radish.
Anthocyanins are used extensively in beverages and confections, and the fundamentally crucial element in determining the final colour to be obtained is the pH of the finished product. Other factors that affect its use in the end product include temperature, oxidation, light and the presence of sugar or salt. All of these factors are extremely difficult to control and regulate.
Acidity has a vital role to play in defining the ultimate colour and stability of the colour, and the anthocyanin when used in differing acidic solutions can produce astonishing differences.
Anthocyanins are used to create a range of shades from pink to deep violet.
With the emphasis on natural products over synthetic and artificial ones, many companies have focused solely on natural food products. In 2010, a natural and purified lactic acid (Purac FIT Plus) was launched that was initially intended to mask off-flavours by regulating the pH of foods.
A recent study has demonstrated the effectiveness of the product for natural colour stabilisation in acidified foods and drinks. It showed that purified lactic acid can reduce the fading of anthocyanins (natural red-purple colours) in acidified finished products by up to 50 percent, compared to commonly used citric acid.
Because fading colour is perceived as a quality defect by consumers, the ability to retain fresh and vibrant colours throughout a product's shelf life is a valuable benefit for formulators and brand owners.
Acidulants have been used for many years for anthocyanin stabilisation and other various purposes. The pH itself is used to stabilise the colour, but this research opens up new opportunities for formulators to stabilise colours more efficiently in acidified applications such as beverages.
There are various motives for acidifying foods and drinks, and the choice of acidulant can dramatically affect anthocyanin stability. Research has found that compared to citric acid, purified lactic acid offers significant improvements in anthocyanin stability, especially when the products are exposed to light, as they are in the retail environment and at home.
These results are very exciting, especially for beverage and fruit preparation manufacturers. With the natural colours market expected to continue to grow, the ability to retain a product's aesthetic qualities while optimising its taste profile with purified lactic acid will not only improve its ability to stand out on the shelf, but also boost consumer perceptions and enhance their eating and drinking experience.
Time To Go Natural
Recent market study has shown that there is strong preference for natural colours. With consumers demanding simplicity and purity, there is no better time to go natural.
According to market research company Mintel, the use of natural colours in new food and drink launches now outweighs the use of artificial colours globally by a ratio of 2:1 and the preference for natural colours is expected to be especially strong in the premium food and drink segments and in products positioned for children.
The company further predicts that the drive for natural food formulations will only get stronger as consumers seek simplicity and purity in the food and drink ingredients' lists. The food industry currently accounts for a 70 percent share of the natural food colours market, while the soft drinks and alcoholic beverages industry accounts for 27 percent and three percent respectively.
In Asia and Latin America, where the market for natural colours is fastest growing, many of the food manufacturers are looking to gain the first mover advantage. And because manufacturers are not hampered by regulatory issues, they are aware of the huge market potential.
At the same time, they need to overcome challenges such as reduced light and heat stability of many natural alternatives, changes in the volume of colour affecting product recipes, changes in the necessary storage conditions, effects on product pH, increased cost and consumer acceptability of the colour itself.
Some natural colours, specifically those sourced from vegetables like pumpkin, carrots or beets, can also have a strong flavour or odour, affecting consumer acceptability. Therefore, it is important to understand how people consume a product before reformulating.
More and more manufacturers are working directly with ingredient specialists on reformulating with natural colours and identifying which colour is best suited to each application.
Because of Europe’s mandatory label warning on artificial food colouring, other regions are following suit as consumer demand for more natural formulations builds and as key producers and retailers look to phase out artificial ingredients.