The market for natural colours is growing steadily and is expected to be worth US$1.7 billion by 2020. Food companies that aim to be part of the cleaner food future are investing now to develop the next natural food trends.
The question nowadays is not whether it’s necessary to switch from synthetic to natural food colourings, but how worried food manufacturers should be if they have not already made the switch. Natural food colouring is no longer a future trend but an actual reality. Consumer impetus is strong for manufacturers to ‘clean’ up, as reflected in the rapid uptake of natural colours in new product launches.
Despite disparate regulatory status across markets, natural alternatives in all main colours are available, with new additions coming through the research and development pipeline regularly. Natural ingredient companies are making constant progress and work closely with food manufacturers to develop optimal formulations for each given product.
Where legislation regulates food colouring, consumers are less concerned about artificial colours.
Europe: A Defining Moment For Natural Food Colouring
Natural colours are increasingly used in food and drink launches.
In 2007, serious concerns were raised through research on the links between a combination of synthetic food colours— the Southampton six—and child hyperactivity. In its 2010 precautionary response, the European Union applied obligatory warnings to children’s food labelling and reduced the acceptable daily intake levels of the colourings. Many EU confectioners switched to natural colours (to avoid the label warning), and this became a differentiator for parents and a vector for consumers to demand natural food colorants.
Despite later research documenting limited possible impacts to children already suffering from attention deficiency disorders, a collective consumer focus on synthetic colours was already entrenched. The logic was simple: why give children food containing unnecessary chemicals? The synthetic colour tide was turning.
Asia Pacific: Stepping Up To Food Safety Challenges
The global uptake of natural food colours in new product development is generally positive, with Europe leading, and Asia Pacific following as the fastest growing natural colour market.
In Asia, a driving force is the pervasiveness of food safety scandals: the recycling of waste oil and animal feed oils that were synthetically coloured and sold as healthier vegetable oils in Taiwan; toxic toothpaste produced in China and imported around the world; or high levels of lead in packet noodles in India.
Widening media exposure, consumer outrage, improving regulatory oversight, and losses in industry market value and share have all contributed to this rapid uptake of natural food additives across the region.
United States: The Natural Colour Revolution Is Underway
Consumers want to see familiar ingredients in their foods.
According to market figures, the US has been lagging behind in making the switch to natural colours. The trend is confirmed in Europe and Asia but still underway in the US. Recent announcements confirm that under growing pressure from consumer and health-interest groups, the natural colour revolution is now in full swing.
For instance, in early 2015 , confectionery giants Hershey and Nestlé USA both announced a move away from artificial flavours and colours, while Mars confidently reaffirmed the safety of these colours as used in the iconic M&M.
Just a year later in early 2016, citing “increasing pressure to remove artificial colours due to growing demands for more natural ingredients in their products,” the company announced that it will phase out all artificial flavours and colours from its entire global food and drink portfolio.
Colouring Foodstuffs: Clean And Clear
Intricate modern extraction processes have allowed the full potential of many plants to be sourced, a real renaissance for botanical ingredients. An added bonus, many of the plant sources offer nutraceutical and nutritional benefits too. So along with great natural colours, come powerful active ingredients such as antioxidants or micronutrients.
Consumers don’t always realise that colour intensity, flavour, aroma, texture or shelf-life may change in the shift from synthetic to natural. Food procures pleasure and emotion, so even marginal changes to the colour may impact appeal. This is one challenge faced by manufacturers: preserving the visual aspect that consumers already love.
There are three main colouring categories: artificial, natural and colouring foodstuffs, which are the most recent addition to the natural food colour palette. Artificial colours are engineered for stability across all applications, while naturally sourced colours may be extracted or concentrated to increase intensity.
Colouring foodstuffs differ from synthetic and natural colours by their status as an actual food ingredient. Some natural colouring additives may be extracted from animal or plant sources that are not identified ‘for human consumption’, such as alfalfa, whereas colouring foodstuffs are just that; food that can be eaten, and thus an ingredient—the much sought-after clear and clean label.
In natural colours, there are differences in intensity and stability, depending on the source and the application. Close collaboration between manufacturers and ingredient suppliers guarantees the right solution for every product.
Beating A Colourful Path To The Millennial Table
As synthetic colours fade from view, new trends in brightly coloured foods are emerging. The millennial generation are not only comfortable with vibrantly coloured food, but are looking for innovative brands and products that speak a healthy and fun language, while meeting new and adventurous expectations. So what is the globally connected millennial looking for on their table?
- More food transparency, safe and healthy products
- New local and international foods, which tell a complete story on health, sustainability, traceability, entrepreneurship, human interest, etc.
- Slow foods that source and value local ingredients
- Technology tricks that rapidly transform food in a fun way
- New horizons in colour and flavour associations
- Food that can be enjoyed and shared visually, virtually and virally
- Building virtual communities through food, which is coloured to match visually recognisable political, social or humanitarian causes and aspirations
Today’s millennial is also tomorrow’s parent, which opens a new era of entertaining and healthy children’s food. At the current speed, within fifteen years, synthetic flavours and colours should be nothing but a distant memory, as the food industry innovates to anticipate the joyous, yet demanding expectations of the comings generations.
Getting It Right For The Children
We love our candies and chocolates. Children especially seem to naturally want all that is sweet in the world. For adults, sweet treats may be associated with our childhood memories, be they sheer moments of pleasure, an excuse to share fun with friends, or a boost when we’re feeling a bit low or tired.
Whatever the reasons and frequency, the consumption of confectionery is pretty much universal, across all cultures and socio-economic levels. As such, parents around the world are becoming increasingly conscious about what’s in these colourful treats.
As adults, we can admit that candies and chocolates are not ‘healthy’ per se— despite those hidden flavanols, natural sweeteners and the like. ‘Unhealthy’ foods in small doses may be acceptable, and most parents are not looking to banish candy completely. But they have made it abundantly clear that there is a big difference between unhealthy and toxic.
Ever since Southampton University published their famous study indicating a possible link between certain artificial colours and hyperactivity in children, pressure from consumer groups and parents, plus regulatory changes in the EU, have seen the switch from artificial colours tip toward the natural. But we are not there yet.
On the question of our children’s wellbeing, it is becoming ethically untenable to justify why we would put chemicals in their food when perfectly good natural solutions exist. If there was one area where we could all agree on 100 percent natural ingredients, then this should be it. It is a lot to ask from the industry, but being ahead of major parental expectations can only add value for long-term loyalty and brand reputation.
Scouring the back of packaging is common practice as we now recognise those ingredients which we can’t identify and don’t want, especially where our children are concerned. Repeated market studies show that parents are willing to pay a bit more for natural products, so what valid reason is left not to make the switch?
Eating With The Eyes, The Mind And The Soul
Until today, flavour was a major vector for innovative food, but colour is now gaining a place in its own right. With the advent of natural colours and colouring foods, consumers and their children can safely enjoy new culinary experiences; through innovations in flavour, texture and colour associations.
Cutting edge extraction and manufacturing technology, which is becoming more environmentally respectful, is delivering processed foods in a more ethical way. Together with increased traceability and sustainability of natural ingredients, brands can build honest product stories that inspire, reassure and delight.
Food colours today aren’t just about visual appeal or flavour illustration. Colour is in itself a way for food manufacturers to incarnate new consumer behaviours and interests, such as social engagement. Think of the buzz around Doritos 2015 rainbow corn chips to support LGBT youth: special rainbow packs of Doritos, raising money for an anti-homophobia charity sold out in a few days.
The food industry isn’t just looking for manufacturers that sell high quality natural ingredients, flavours and colours. They need partners to inspire and help them innovate to bring great new products and applications to the market.
Imagining The Best Food Future Possible
If Big Food can get their heads around the collective shift in conscience toward high-quality natural foods, as smaller market newcomers are already doing, it will indeed be a bright and colourful future. A future where natural ingredients reign supreme, are cultivated and manufactured sustainably… and where all the world’s populations can have their fill.
As consumer attitudes towards food continue to mature, quality and relevance is increasingly going to win over quantity. Innovation and anticipating consumer wants and needs are key to retaining market share, whatever the demography. Are we leaders, followers, or perhaps collaborators in this new food production?