Natural food colorants present challenges

Food scientists and manufacturers face a number of hurdles in identifying and effectively using natural food colorants.

July 7, 2012 07:01
1 minute read.
Woman drinks green sports drink

Woman drinks green sports drink 370. (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)

LAS VEGAS – Food scientists and manufacturers face a number of hurdles in identifying and effectively using natural food colorants, without diminishing product quality, safety and consumer satisfaction, according to a presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) 2012 Annual Meeting & Food Expo in Las Vegas.

According to a 2011 Nielsen survey, 92 percent of consumers in 10 countries said they were concerned about artificial colors, and 88 percent said they preferred natural ingredients. Eighty-six percent of consumers said they pay attention to news stories related to artificial food coloring.

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While the FDA recently voted against label changes for food products with artificial colors, food scientists are diligently working to replace artificial colorants with natural ingredients derived from food, spices, flowers, and plants.

The challenge is identifying a wide variety of natural colors, and successfully integrating them into food products.

“Natural colorants are not a stock commodity,” said Robert Wrolstad, PhD, distinguished professor emeritus at Oregon State University. For example, while there are many potential sources for the color red, including fruit and vegetable juice, black carrots, red radishes, and purple sweet potatoes and corn, there are few options for the color blue.

In addition, naturally-derived colorants can have varying temperature sensitivites, pH (hydrogen activity) and other attributes, affecting a product’s appearance, flavor, calories, taste and stability.

To accommodate these changes, product packaging and processing may need to change, and nearly always, “the cost of producing the product will increase,” said Cathy Culver, PhD, principal scientist, Pepsi-Cola North America.

“You need to understand your product, what it’s made with, what it’s being packaged in, and where it is being packaged,” Culver told food scientists. For example, “if you have a color that is heat sensitive you have to be very careful selling this product in India, or another country with a hot climate.

“You need to confirm that when consumers buy your product, that it is going to be what they expect,” said Culver.

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