Making it look good enough to eat is the ever-evolving job of colors used in food formulation.
That we “eat” with our eyes is accepted as fact. That many of us are moved to show off irresistible-looking foodstuffs on social media is pretty much a given as well. What seems forever new, though, is the ongoing work and innovation that goes into encouraging these reactions—the development of colors for food and beverage formulation.
Color plays a vital role in food and beverage selection, observes Emina Goodman, senior director, colors, for ADM. “Not only does it delight the senses, but it also differentiates flavor expectations and aids in taste perceptions,” says Goodman.
Probably the biggest trend in colors for food is the move toward the use of natural colors—and the increasing availability of naturally derived options that function effectively in product development. New product launches formulated with natural colors increased by nearly 50% in 2019, according to data from research firm Mintel.
ADM’s research finds 62% of consumers actively avoid artificial coloring in foods and beverages, says Goodman. ADM’s Colors from Nature are created with proprietary extraction and blending techniques, she notes.
“Just as in the past artificial colors found their way into every conceivable corner of [the] industry, now natural colors are making the same slow but steady march. As a result, perhaps the most significant activity occurring right now in food and beverage coloring is, in a sense, a renaissance of product development,” says Stephen Lauro, who heads colorMaker Inc. as colorful executive officer. The natural color blends colorMaker produces are tailored to its customers’ product, process, and packaging requirements, Lauro adds.
Consumers want to know what’s in their food, which is why simple, easy-to-understand labels matter, says Connie Sandusky, global marketing director for DDW, The Color House. Sandusky cites DDW’s Amaize Red anthocyanin made from corn and its Chlorophyll extracted from edible grass as examples. DDW’s simple label browns, Naturbrown, and DDW color blends are formulated to mimic the colors of raw and cooked meat products, she adds.
In order to deliver the satisfaction of what they seek to replace, plant-based meat analogues don’t just need to taste and feel like meat, they need to look the part as well. And because health concerns are a purchase driver of meat analogues, consumers expect the colorings to come from non-synthetic sources.
Retail sales of plant-based products designed to look and taste like popularly consumed meats grew 38% between 2017 and 2019, reports Christiane Lippert, head of food marketing for Lycored, citing data from SPINS (via The Good Food Institute).
Most of the challenges with formulating meat analogues have been around providing colors that would make uncooked plant-based products look like raw meat and cooked products look like cooked meat, says Enver Ersen, director of application for ROHA USA. ROHA’s application scientists, he says, have developed heat-stable natural colorants for these applications, including Natracol Red Dry Blend made from red beet and Natracol Scarlet Red EM, made from a blend of red beet and paprika.
Naturex’s VegeBrite Reds and Brown natural colors are customized solutions formulated to recreate an authentic color transition from red to brown during the cooking process, which can be a real challenge due to the complexity of food matrices in meat analogues, says RoJenia Jones, regional product manager—colors, for Naturex, part of Givaudan.
The Naturex colors use a combination of natural extracts and concentrates to create the cooking transition effect.
Kalsec has expanded its portfolio of red beet solutions to include minimally processed Naturebrite Red Beet Coloring Food in liquid and dry forms to address the color transition issue, says Bertrand Martzel, commercial director, colors, for the company. He adds that proteins from vegetable origin do not contain any cells already colored red or pink, which makes colors an essential ingredient in formulating realistic-looking meat alternatives.
Chr. Hansen offers Hansen sweet potato that provides a non-carmine red/pink that shifts from red to brown when cooked in plant-based patties and can be used in sausage and bacon alternative protein products as well, says Susan Frecker, senior application scientist with the company.
Plant-based meat alternatives are vying for the top of the vegetarian product food chain, but they cannot get there unless ingredients are clean, able to withstand intensive processing, and assure color stays true, Lippert summarizes.
Lycored’s lycopene-based colors for meat substitutes are plant-sourced (from tomatoes), Non-GMO Project Verified, vegan, allergen free, kosher, halal, and from a backward integrated source, Lippert adds.
Recent stability studies conducted by Lycored on pink shades for plant-based delicatessen ham and hot dog meat substitutes found its lycopene-based color did not fade or brown, even with the typical shelf life of two months, Lippert reports.
Plant-based fish and shellfish alternatives are predicted to be a top global trend over the next few years, and color solutions for fish present particular challenges, which vary in difficulty depending upon the subcategory, notes Jones of Naturex. For whitefish, it is necessary to whiten the plant-based protein base, which is beige to yellow, depending on the formulation. Salmon and crustaceans require orange to pink/red colors with good stability across processes. For tuna, it is important to realistically replicate the color change that happens during cooking when fresh, uncooked tuna turns from a deep red color to brown, she explains.
“While the vegan-friendly seafood market is still small, it’s attracting a huge amount of attention, and the quality and range of products is increasing all the time,” says Jeannette O’Brien, vice president at GNT USA.
Many of the current plant-based fish products are based on soy, pea, lentil, and chickpea, says O’Brien. They’re mainly processed by extrusion or created by mixing proteins with stabilizing systems and a heating step. These processes, in combination with high pH values, can prove challenging for plant-based colors, she observes. GNT’s EXBERRY coloring foods (produced from fruits, vegetables, and edible plants through physical processing methods such as chopping and boiling) include a range of shades for plant-based fish products, from tuna sashimi to salmon steaks, O’Brien says.
Blue hues are making a comeback in food and beverage products thanks to the availability of plant-based colors that enable new shades while maintaining clean label standards, says Meghan Fox, marketing specialist for Sensient Food Colors, Sensient Technologies.
GNT’s O’Brien notes that blue had fallen out of favor with product developers due to its association with artificial colors, but that has changed with the advent of colors derived from spirulina, a type of algae. Now blue is enjoying a “huge revival,” she notes.
Huito fruit from Peru’s Amazon region lends its vivid blue hue to ADM’s Colors from Nature line. Heat- and acid-stable, the company’s proprietary huito blue, created from the juice of the fruit, is able to withstand harsh processing conditions to achieve a variety of blue, purple, and green shades across a multitude of applications, Goodman reports.
Naturex has extended its range of blue spirulina formulations with its VegeBrite Ultimate Spirulina collection, which is gently water extracted, trehalose free, and clean label friendly, according to Jones. The new line creates vibrant colors ranging from deep Mediterranean blues to fresh greens as well as pastel hues, Jones adds.
Chr. Hansen recently launched its FruitMax Blue 1506, a patent-pending spirulina-based liquid formulation specifically designed for coloring hard candy and lozenges blue from natural sources, according to Tammi Geiger, marketing manager for the company, which provides natural colors that are non-GMO, not chemically treated, and come from algae, plant, fruit, and vegetable sources. The new formula doesn’t produce unwanted spots or cloudiness or lose its ability to color during challenging processing steps, says Geiger.
Using fruit- and vegetable-based colors requires that developers understand and formulate with the inherent characteristics of the source botanical, says Sensient’s Fox.
“Developers need to pay close attention to acidity, light stability, heat stability, and processing conditions,” Fox notes.
The replacement of erythrosine (FD&C Red No. 3) and Allura Red (FD&C Red No. 40) in meat or synthetic beta-carotene in sauces and dressings supports the development of red beet and carrot colors, says Martzel of Kalsec.
Red beet is experiencing new momentum with the continued growth of the meat alternative market, Martzel continues. At one time, it was primarily used just in neutral pH dairy applications, but as consumer demand for alternative proteins grows, red beet, a well-established color, has become an ideal option for use in this application, he says.
In the past, food technologists shunned beet juice because it is less heat-stable than anthocyanins produced by fruits, notes colorMaker’s Lauro. “Who would want to add a color that turns brown around 160˚F?” Lauro asks. “A food technologist making a plant-based, vegan ‘meat’ product, that’s who. Beet juice is red at the neutral pH of matrices made mostly of pea protein or whey protein or soy protein isolates. Beet juice adds that ‘raw’ or ‘uncooked’ meat red color, but when cooked, beet juice turns brown.”
Of course, Lauro continues, “beet juice tastes like beets. Similarly, purple sweet potato tastes like a potato. These are not the flavors wanted in products such as a strawberry beverage or a vegan ‘hamburger.’“
Earthy, sulfur, vegetable flavor notes from vegetable juices can be challenging for food formulators and may require the use of flavor maskers. And fruit and vegetable juices’ sensitivity to pH presents additional formulation challenges. At the neutral pH of plant-based, vegan “meats,” fruit and vegetable juices appear blue, not red.
“Nobody wants a blue hamburger,” says Lauro. But at the acidic pH of most beverages, fruit and vegetable juices develop a bright red color, which is perfect for strawberry-flavored soda with a pH as low as 3.2, but not for strawberry-flavored milk with a pH as high as 6.5.
“Food technologists should carefully think about final product pH on the front end of product development when considering the use of fruit and vegetable juices for color, not on the back end of product development,” Lauro advises.
Recent FMCG Gurus research shows seven out of 10 consumers feel it’s important that meat substitute products are 100% naturally formulated, says GNT’s O’Brien, citing FMCG Gurus‘ Top Trend: Plant-Life Explored (2020). Despite this, many plant-based products have neither clean labels nor short ingredient lists, according to O’Brien.
“As a result, we’re entering the plant-based 2.0 era, with manufacturers reformulating their products to make sure they match shoppers’ demands,” says O’Brien. “Colors are a vital part of that, and it goes beyond just artificial colors. One survey this year showed that 62% of shoppers are concerned about any ingredients that sound chemical, which means even some so-called ‘natural’ colorants can be an issue,” says O’Brien.
GNT’s EXBERRY Coloring Foods can be described on an ingredient list as “fruit and/or vegetable juice (color),” which is easy for shoppers to understand, O’Brien adds. “Because we’re coloring food with food, there are certain technical considerations that need to be taken into account, depending on the requirements of the application,” she continues. “For example, carotenoids provide the natural coloration for some of our raw materials such as pumpkins and orange carrots. When using carotenoid-containing colors, they can shift from an orange to a yellow hue in the presence of fat, heat, and shear.”
As food formulas and processes change to adapt to consumer demand for healthier foods, it is vital for the color industry to adapt, says Ersen. ROHA’s efforts, he adds, have been focused on growing its natural colors portfolio to provide clean label solutions across the whole color spectrum.
“Replacing synthetic additives with natural alternatives when possible is becoming an expectation of consumers across many geographies,” says Kalsec’s Martzel.
Still, not all natural colors are suitable for every product development application, points out Jones of Naturex. Synthetic colors can offer advantages when it comes to cost as well as vibrancy and stability, especially under harsh processing conditions, says Ersen.
“There will most likely always be a place for synthetics in the market unless regulations change in years to come or the cost of naturals improves,” observes Fox of Sensient.
In addition, there is a subset of consumers who do not express a preference between synthetic and natural colors, notes Elena Taylor, senior marketing director for Dawn Foods. “Thus,” Taylor explains, “we believe food and beverage formulators will continue to use [synthetic colors]—perhaps just not on as large of a scale.”