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Natural colours are here to stay…but there are still challenges

By Caroline Scott-Thomas, 06-Feb-2013

Related topics: Flavours and colours, Market Trends, Natural and clean label

Synthetic colours may still be more prevalent than natural colours in foods and beverages, but natural is catching up as manufacturers increasingly look first to natural ingredients in developing new products – however, challenges remain.

The trend for natural colours was given a major boost in the European Union in 2010 when lawmakers imposed a warning label on foods containing six colours that a study had linked to hyperactivity in children – despite much debate about the validity of the study’s conclusions – and consumers’ general desire for natural foods has also driven manufacturers away from synthetic colours.

Meanwhile, consumer concern about artificial colours has increased and in 2011, 92% of consumers surveyed across ten countries by market research firm Nielsen said they were concerned about artificial colours, and more than three quarters (78%) said they would be willing to pay a premium for naturally coloured foods.

But there are still some big challenges for manufacturers looking to switch out synthetic colours and replace them with natural equivalents.

Bigger isn’t always better…

One issue is the bulkiness of fruit and vegetable extracts in particular, which may require the use of far larger volumes than synthetic colourants.

Principal product technologist for Nestlé, Steve Tolliday, told delegates at the HIE conference in Frankfurt in November that when the company was reformulating one of its confectionery brands to remove artificial colours, it had to use 21 kilograms of natural food colouring per batch to achieve the desired colour effect  – compared to just 100 grams of artificial colouring.

“You can go from the equivalent of a teabag-size of colour to a big bag of colour,” he said. “This increase in volume of could can have an effect on the recipe itself and the colour becomes much more significant.”

Other challenges include the reduced light and heat stability of many natural alternatives; changes in the necessary storage conditions; effects on product pH; increased cost; and consumer acceptability of the colour itself.

Heat, light and air

Some of the world’s biggest companies are still looking for solutions to key issues like stability. Unilever, for example, is looking for help in finding a natural red colour for fruit and dairy applications through its open innovation platform .

The challenge, it says, is to find a natural alternative to carmine, which is not very stable when exposed to heat, light and oxygen, or when carmine-containing products are stored for a long time. Another option could be to find a natural stabiliser for carmine, the company says.

Tolliday says that Nestlé’s product development teams have had to spend a lot more time thinking about how to make products visually appealing despite opaque packaging, which may enable the use of more light-sensitive colours.

However, there have been advances over the past few years. Boundaries have been pushed in terms of heat stability, and new colour sources have been identified and developed.