And while that has translated to a growing demand for natural instead of artificial colors, even some naturally derived colors aren’t safe from criticism, which is why proper consumer education on the role of natural colors is key, says natural colors supplier FMC Corp.
“I definitely think it’s a natural rather than a forced shift to natural, coming from consumer preference for naturals continuing to drive the market,” Tammi Higgins, global natural colors marketing manager of Philadelphia-based FMC, told FoodNavigator-USA. “We see that at all levels of the consumer base, from social media through to specific customer requests.”
In light of growing consumer visibility, (the very public 2012 attacks on insect-derived red color carmine come to mind), educating consumers on the reasons behind the need for natural colors and how they can impact and improve a finished product becomes all the more important, Higgins noted. She says she wouldn’t necessarily chalk it up to misconception, rather a lack of knowledge about food coloring in general.
“If you see turmeric on the back of the label, the average consumer might not know enough to know it’s there for coloring unless there is an explanation in parenthesis. It would benefit the consumer to know where the colors are coming from, what they are and how they can improve on or impact an end product,” she said. “I think there’s obviously visibility with what happened with carmine. People think it’s all about the bugs, but there are positives there, because it’s a nice stable color.”
Few options for stable natural red for UHT beverages
Indeed, the ongoing challenge for manufacturers is to find stable food color options that also satisfy these shifting consumer preferences. FMC has recently launched nature-identical beta carotene to deliver a red hue—a “very important piece of the rainbow” when it comes to coloring food and beverage, especially for beverages that undergo ultra-high temperature (UHT) processing, Higgins noted.
“Red takes on about 50% of the overall natural market,” she said. “That’s a very significant piece, and if you think about the UHT pH-neutral beverage world for natural red in particular, there aren’t really a lot of options for, say, a milk or soy beverage that’s been heavily heated.”
While carmine is a stable red option, it’s limited by negative consumer perception (exacerbated further by claims by the Center for Science in the Public Interest that it causes allergic reactions in some people), along with the fact that it’s not kosher or vegetarian.
“Then you’re left with beetroot, which again is a very nice red color and looks pretty, but it’s not really stable and tends to fade when it undergoes intense heating,” Higgins said.
FMC’s nature-identical beta carotene provides a red hue and shade that’s relatively stable across applications, Higgins claimed. It also can withstand the shelf life typical for a UHT product, though “it’s not the be all and end all,” she admitted.
“We’re always looking to see what we can improve upon,” she said. “Beta carotene red is a suitable option right now, but we’re also exploring other carotenoid options with more stability and hue shading so there are more options in UHT-stable applications.”
FMC petition: getting more vegetable-derived chlorophyllin into F&B
Another big void in the natural food and beverage colors spectrum is green, which is why FMC is backing a petition supporting the use of plant-based chlorophyllin that was initiated by Phytone, the UK colors firm FMC acquired in 2012.
“Phytone saw the need for green in the US market, so they initiated a petition process prior to the acquisition. Green is a big gap right now, which is why we’re putting our resources behind it. There’s still a need in the market for green that works across a broad base of applications and categories.”
Currently sodium copper chlorophyllin is only approved for a very niche application—citrus-based dry beverage mixes—so FMC’s petition expands the applications and categories in which chlorophyllin can be used.
The chlorophyllin market can be broken down into two derivations: vegetable-based chlorophyll, which comes from sources such as alfalfa and spinach and chlorophyll derived from silk worm excrement from mulberry leaves. Currently about 80% of market comes from the insect source. “That’s not a well-known fact—something else we have to educate people about,” Higgins noted.
While there’s no set timetable on FMC’s petition, the company aims to have it filed within the calendar year.
“We’re continuing to work very closely with FDA to finalize the stability data,” Higgins said. “We’ve submitted a couple summaries over the past couple months for response and feedback. We’re getting good positive feedback, but there’s still a little more work needed.”
From a processing standpoint, plant-derived chlorophyllin presents similar challenges to any natural—from maintaining flavor and color profiles to improving or maintaining the texture and stability of the end product.
“When putting all those parameters into perspective, it’s really the most important to work with an expert who understands those interactions in coloring and texturants,” Higgins said.