The growth in sales of natural food colorants is expected to continue growing strong. The food color market reached $2.85B at the end of last year (about double the 2015 figures), and boasts a CAGR of nearly 6%. In a reversal of the previous decade, natural colors now comprise 69% of the market, and multiple sources expect sales of natural colorants to land between $3B and $3.5B or higher by 2027, exhibiting a CAGR of between 8-12% or greater.
According to Allied Market Research, “The natural color segment dominates the global market and is expected to retain its dominance throughout the forecast period. The shift away from artificial colorants is driven almost entirely by consumer demand and based on negative perceptions of the chemical nature of artificial colorants and their safety, especially in children.”
Advances in technology are continuing to overcome the greatest challenges of natural colorants as compared to artificial — vibrancy and durability. Typically, popular plant-derived pigments are based on the compounds carotenoids, anthocyanins, curcumin, and chlorophyll, derived from tomatoes, carrots, beets, berries, cherries, grapes (and grape skins), cabbage, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, sugar, and algae. Part of what makes these so desirable for consumers is their dual value as natural and sustainable ingredients, and their health value as bioactive phytochemicals.
While these natural colorant types include both water-soluble and lipid-soluble pigments, all are subject to reaction with acids, bases, heat, light, and other assaults and can rapidly bleed, fade, or simply change color. Examples include new methods of incorporating natural pigments into formulations via emulsions and encapsulations. These allow fragile colorants from plants to survive harsh processing conditions and maintain longer shelf life and coloring ability.
Another technological approach to creating more durable and long-lasting colorants made from fruits and vegetables is the use of a crystallized format. They are available as clean-label colorants do not need to use a carrier, such as glycerin, propylene glycol, water, salt, food oils, sucrose, or other sugars. These formats are allergen-free and especially well-suited for low/no-calorie foods and beverages.
The crystalline nature limits dusting (such as occurs with spray-dried powder formats) and they can be manufactured to be at least five times more concentrated than most liquid food colors.
Such crystal colors have demonstrated high stability, long shelf life, require no refrigeration, and are available as certified non-GMO organic, as well as kosher and halal.
OLD FAVORITES, NEW COLORS
Purple yams (ube) have a near century-long tradition of use to color foods in Philippine cuisine, especially for desserts such as ice cream and sweet dairy beverages. Fine-tuning the pigments from purple sweet potato has allowed it to contribute stable shades ranging from pink to fuchsia to red. The colorant can hold up well in either carbonated or non-carbonated beverages and has been used to add concord-colored tones to apple-juice based fruit drinks.
Many of these plant-derived colorants, including those from turmeric, caramel, and annatto, are available as certified organic. Ingredient specialists have developed strong and stable versions, using traditional selective breeding rather than genetic modification. For example, one company’s colorant technologists dedicated more than a decade to cross-breeding a sweet potato variety with pigments that could create vibrant reds.
The result of the intensive effort was a new line of alternatives to synthetic red pigments and cochineal red (carmine). The latter, although technically considered to be from a “natural” source, is derived from crushed insect and is rejected by many consumers. The new line of bright-red colors that resulted from the new potato strain fills the bill as a clean label color and works especially well in bakery foods, confections, beverages, and meat analogs.
Other food color developers have turned to the classic red beet and developed techniques to create vivid reds that can withstand the high heat of baking without browning, fading, or other color changes.
GOLD AND BROWN
The trend in sulfite-free, natural caramel colors is accelerating even as the offerings within caramel colors expands to include varying shades of yellow to deep brown. The darker-toned caramel browns have an additional benefit in imparting flavor notes that mimic cocoa powder. While not replacements for cocoa, they can be used to extend cocoa and provide rich chocolate color in many applications.
Cocoa extracts themselves are used to enhance the chocolate flavor and color in bakery items. Such extracts allow for up to a 40% reduction of pure cocoa powder, as well as provide for a moister, longer shelf-life product. Moreover, since unsweetened cocoa powder is bitter, reducing the cocoa can yield a finished item that is lower in sugar.
A promising source of natural yellow and gold colors has been discovered in ancient plants known as liverworts. The pigments, flavonoid compounds called “auronidins,” are particularly hardy and, best of all, water-soluble. Since yellow and orange colors are typically derived from carotenoid compounds, they are oil-soluble and thus much harder to work with in formulation. Moreover, auronidins hold their color under acidic conditions.
Another aspect of the new pigments from liverworts is that they can exhibit a greater range of colors than is typical in a single-source ingredient. Depending on whether or not the medium they are incorporated into is acid or base, they run a gamut of hues from pale yellow through orange, all the way to red and purple.
In recent years, our trendcasters pointed to blue coloring from juice from huito fruit (Genipa americana) coming to market soon. Well, it’s here. There now is a US source for this stable, blue color suitable for food and beverage formulations. Huito blue is acid-, light-, and heat-stable blue color and thus able to be adjusted to attain a spectrum of not only blues and purples but also, greens and browns.
Spirulina, a microalgae, has been the most common — and, until huito, the only — approved blue colorant for foods. Spirulina has been refined for use as an oil-dispersible spray or as micronized powders. Under the right conditions, its blue pigment, phycocyanin, delivers a vibrant colors that can compete with synthetic blues.
Since spirulina is a protein, it is normally highly susceptible to heat and acid, leading it to fade or clump. While this makes it harder to use in high-heat formulations, for items such as candies and coatings, these challenges can be addressed by incorporating the colorant when the formulation mass cools to temperatures below 266°F. The lower the temperature, the more vivid the blue achieved. Another method is to insulate the color by using a premix blend of two parts color to one part corn syrup or maltitol syrup or similar.
With more than two-thirds of food and beverage colorants now derived from natural sources, processors have multiple solutions for reformulating their more colorful offerings as clean label. The relative speed with which the balance shifted demonstrates the power of consumer demands in ways that should be a bellwether to product developers hesitating to embrace the trend of simpler formulations with familiar ingredients.