The first silica-based colouring approved for food

‘Non-synthetic’ food colours: Acceptable compromise or too far from nature?

By Natalie Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Merck's red food colour - a combination of silica and iron oxide - is a 'mineral-based and non-artificial dye alternative' to synthetic colours, it says. Photo: iStock
Merck's red food colour - a combination of silica and iron oxide - is a 'mineral-based and non-artificial dye alternative' to synthetic colours, it says. Photo: iStock

Related tags Food and drink

Next-gen food colourings like Merck’s new silica-based pigment could offer a compromise between colouring foodstuffs and synthetic products. Yet, experts have questioned potential for consumer acceptance.

Many consumers would prefer to see colours derived from whole food products like beetroot (colouring food stuffs), as opposed to ‘Southampton six’​ synthetic colourings linked with hyperactivity, experts told FoodNavigator.

However, many natural products are known to have worse properties in terms of light, heat and pH stability.

A natural product which could offer stability equal to synthetic products is therefore ‘the holy grail’, Steve Osborn, commercial director, Aurora Ceres Partnership, UK noted.

New wave “non-artificial” ​food colourings like Merck’s latest offering – Candurin NXT Ruby Red – could be a halfway house between synthetic and colouring foodstuffs, Osborn said.

The firm claims​ the product is very stable. A spokesperson told this publication that it has a five-year minimum shelf-life with no change of colour expected, and that it has heat stability up to 600°C.

© Merck

Merck claims the pigment has “superb”​ stability. It brands the insoluble combination of silica and iron oxide as a “mineral-based and non-artificial dye alternative” ​to synthetic colours like Allura Red (E 129)and non-vegan pigments like Carmine (E 120).

It is the first silica-based colouring approved for use in food, and is also vegan and kosher.                                                    

E numbers and consumer concerns

Yet, both Osborn and Laura Jones, global food science analyst at Mintel, agreed consumers may not accept it as a natural product, despite the fact it would allow the label claim “without any artificial colours”.

“Iron oxide is natural red colour but the challenge will be convincing (consumers),”​ Osborn said, noting a lot of red colourings like beetroot red or red carrot have “clean label”​ propositions.

“The challenge is whether (Candurin NXT) will be a clean enough label to the consumer. If it’s declared silica-based iron oxide, then it might not sound it. The challenge will be getting over that clean label as push towards the natural proposition.”

Jones added that consumer acceptance could depend on the way products containing Candurin NXT are labelled – a factor which could change depending on where it is sold.

“If you look at colouring food stuffs in Europe more of those are starting to list the fruit or vegetable it comes from, so that’s more in line with what consumers understand natural to be,” ​she said.

Since Candurin NXT is made from silica and iron oxide, Jones noted she would assume they would carry the related E numbers. Though the pigment would fit the natural products category, she said it will not appear the same on the label as colouring food stuffs. 

“Consumers understand that E numbers aren’t always good – they don’t realise some of those are natural.”

However, the company spokesperson said Merck has already seen interest from major players in the chocolate and pastry decoration sectors.

“Market feedback is very positive so far.”

Changing market

In any case, there is a space is the market for new colourings which could replace the Southampton six and outperform existing natural colourings stability-wise, Osborn said. Cost-wise, the products would at least need to be no more expensive than the existing manufacturing process, he added.

If Candurin NXT can be successfully integrated into products, it is likely more companies will look to develop similar next generation products, Jones noted.

Colouring food stuffs usage is also likely to increase in popularity in line with consumers’ desire to eat whole products rather than additives, she said.

Jones said it is difficult to track usage of colouring food stuffs globally since labelling is not yet standardised (for instance a label could read ‘beetroot extract’ instead of colouring food stuffs).


However, colouring food stuffs company GNT this week announced it would build a spirulina plant in the Netherlands in response to growing demand around the world. The facility will double its capacity for blue and green products.

The global use of natural colours in general continues to increase and usage of synthetics is on the decline, Jones said, adding North America, the Middle East and Africa are increasing uptake in the wake of early adopters Europe and Asia Pac.

“I think this will continue,”​ she said.

Earlier this year, FoodNavigator reported​ on the range of companies shifting products toward natural colourings.

At the time, John George, Ingredients Analyst at Euromonitor said: “Companies which only made pledges relating to a limited product range, such as Nestlé with confectionery and Kraft-Heinz with their macaroni and cheese product, could come under renewed scrutiny.”

However, Osborn questioned how big the remaining gap in the market for natural food colourings is.

Companies who have not been able to take on other natural options will likely adopt next-gen products quickly, but those who have successfully taken on natural colours like anthocyanins could see it as a “less natural option”.

Those which have not already made the switch to a fully naturally-coloured product line may be unable to recreate the specific colour with anything but the synthetic option, he added.

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