Bright ideas: The evolution of natural colours


- Last updated on GMT

Discussion has moved from 'naturalness' toward wider issues, including E numbers, functionality and sustainability
Discussion has moved from 'naturalness' toward wider issues, including E numbers, functionality and sustainability

Related tags Natural colours Consumer Food

Use of natural colours has increased rapidly in recent years, as food companies have looked to switch out artificial alternatives – but precisely what they are looking for is changing over time.

The natural colours sector received a major boost in 2007, when a study published in The Lancet​ linked six synthetic colours (and the preservative sodium benzoate) with hyperactivity in children. The European Food Safety Authority assessed the study and found no reason to revise its opinion on the safety of the colours, but lawmakers decided to mandate a warning label on products across Europe all the same.

Since then, food companies have scrambled for ways to avoid such labels – and the ingredients industry has stepped up. But challenges for food manufacturers looking to cut out synthetic colours remain, including reduced light and heat stability of many natural alternatives; changes in the volume of colour affecting product recipes; changes in the necessary storage conditions; effects on product pH; increased cost; and consumer acceptability of the colour itself.

Finding a natural blue​ has been particularly challenging, but finally, several companies came up with solutions, and blue foods are no longer synonymous with artificially coloured foods.

Natural? What does that even mean?

Meanwhile, without a legal definition for ‘natural’​ when it relates to colours, consumers have developed their own ideas of what the word really means.

UK ingredients company Ulrick and Short recently commissioned a survey of 2000 consumers to canvass opinion on food ingredients and labelling. It found 45% said they avoided artificial ingredients – often by avoiding E numbers, implying that many consumers are unaware that naturally derived ingredients can carry E numbers too.

Meanwhile 75% said they wanted simpler labelling.

"There’s no better time to take a good look at making better use of clean label ingredients, not just for health or cost reasons but to clean up ingredient declarations and meet the demand from consumers for simpler, clearer labelling,”​ the company’s director Adrian Short told FoodNavigator earlier this month​.

Colouring foodstuffs

Some companies have claimed consumer dislike of E numbers has driven the colouring foodstuffs market. The term colouring foodstuffs usually refers to colouring extracts derived from recognised foods, processed in such a way that the extract retains the raw material’s characteristic properties such as colour and flavour.

They are becoming increasingly popular with food manufacturers, since they are considered ingredients rather than additives and, as such, do not carry an E number classification.

According to market research organisation MarketsandMarkets, the global food colours market is set to reach a value of $2.3bn by 2019 and market growth is inclined towards natural colours, as there is an increase in the health conscious consumer base that demands nature derived ingredients and additives in food.”

What’s next?

Increased functionality of natural alternatives is still the main priority for food companies – but wider production issues may gain in importance in the coming years.

Nestlé’s principal product technologist Steve Tolliday, for example, has predicted​ more discussion about sustainable sourcing of natural colours in the near future.

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