Socially-aware, digitally-savvy, health-conscious Gen Z force ‘radical rethink’ of natural colours

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

How 'zoomers' are shaping innovation in food and drinks / Pic: GettyImages Image Source
How 'zoomers' are shaping innovation in food and drinks / Pic: GettyImages Image Source

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Natural colours have undergone a significant makeover. Once seen as too expensive, unstable and unable to deliver vibrancy, these challenges have been overcome by an industry working to deliver on consumer demand for cleaner labels with zero compromise. But what does the future hold? FoodNavigator catches up with supplier GNT Group to find out how emerging consumer demands for what the company calls ‘healthy hedonism’ are shaping food and beverage colour trends.

Established 40 years ago in the German city of Aachen, GNT wanted to produce colouring concentrates ‘in the most natural way possible’. “When we first started making colors from fruits, vegetables, and plants in 1978, natural colors were too expensive, weren’t stable, and lacked the vibrancy of artificial colours,”​ reflected Maartje Hendrickx, Market Development Manager, GNT Group.

The company’s founder coined the term ‘colouring foods’: food concentrates used solely for the purpose of delivering colour to food and beverages. This approach has become the industry standard across a number of markets, as the ability of natural colours to deliver a functional performance has improved. “This has changed dramatically in recent times,”​ Hendrickx confirmed. “Today, we can provide plant-based, sustainable colours that are every bit as vibrant as synthetics in the majority of applications. This creates opportunities for food and beverage manufacturers to use bold, hedonistic hues to create a new visual language for products that are good for people and the planet.”

The emergence of ‘healthy hedonism’

Indeed, GNT believes we have entered a ‘bold new era’ of ‘healthy hedonism’ – an approach that is inspiring food and beverage makers to radically rethink what is possible with the use of natural colours.

The company, which recently undertook a research project to examine consumer attitudes to colour in food and drink, found the F&B colours market is being shaped by three desires: Generation Z’s desire to ‘embrace joy and creativity’ while also ‘staying true to core values’ and taking a holistic approach to health and wellness.

“The emergence of a new generation of socially aware, digitally savvy, health-conscious consumers is rapidly changing the industry. These shoppers want joyful, exciting food and beverage experiences that they can share on social media, but they’re not willing to compromise on their values either. They expect food and drink to be healthy and sustainable while also delivering sensory excitement – and visual impact is more crucial than ever in the digital age. This ‘healthy hedonism’ trend promises to have a major impact on the use of color in food and drink,”​ Hendrickx told FoodNavigator.

How is this playing out in the F&B space? What does ‘healthy hedonism’ mean for colour innovation in food and drinks?

“Healthy hedonism is changing perceptions of what’s possible with natural colour,”​ Hendrickx responded. “We’ve identified a variety of ‘colour directions’ taking place as part of the trend, such as the use of bright, soft-play pastels in better-for-you treats. Ultimately, though, it’s about taking risks and being creative through colour choices. Luckily, the world is becoming more diverse and inclusive and this is what you see in the new colour palettes we’ve found in our research. It’s no longer about one colour but the whole palette together – the colours enhance each other.”

Innovation pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in natural colours 

GNT’s analysis points to new directions in natural colour innovation: for example, ‘cute soft-play pastel shades’ are being used to redefine what ‘healthy and sustainable’ looks like, while ‘psychedelic colour schemes’ now work with ‘mind-boosting ingredients’ to tap into new-age wellbeing. Bright, clashing colour combinations can also enable brands to create virtuous products that satisfy the desire for creativity and self-expression, the company suggested.

These possibilities have been unlocked through processing, technical and sourcing innovation, Hendrickx suggested. “We’re always looking to push the boundaries of what’s possible using plant-based colours. While our range already covers the full rainbow, we continue to introduce new raw materials and new product formats as well as enhancing existing products. For instance, innovation on the product level has enabled us to develop new red and blue products with significantly higher colour intensity in recent years,”​ we heard.

“Different formats can help us to deliver more vibrant shades in particular applications. Our micronized powders, for example, are made with a unique multi-stage milling to create a smaller particle size that allows them to deliver a more intense visual impact in applications such as pressed tablets, compound coatings, and instant beverages. We also work hard to increase the colour intensity of our raw materials. We constantly screen for new crop varieties with naturally high colour levels as well as enhancing our cultivation techniques.

“Sometimes improvements aren’t down to the product or crop but how the product works in the final application. Factors such as heat and pH can influence the hue of plant-based colours. Finding the right solution might only require a small innovation, but it can have a big impact.”

Gen Z are ‘the true innovators’

When working on its trend outlook, GNT decided to focus on Generation Z, or ‘zoomers’ – those born in the mid- to late-1990s. This upcoming demographic is committed to holistic wellness and actively promoting their environmental and social agendas through their purchasing power, GNT found. The new generation of consumers is radical, diverse, and digitally native – and it is rapidly changing global attitudes toward food and drink, the research suggested.

The impact of social media platforms and the digital world mean that the visual impact of food and beverage is ‘more important than ever before’, according to GNT. And social media also means that zoomers have more influence and a greater voice in the innovation process than ever before, we were told.

“We’ve been looking mainly to Gen Z to identify the key colour directions as they’re the true innovators. Innovation is no longer a task for innovation managers who are thinking about trends from behind their desk. It’s about the youth, who come up with exciting new trends that spread rapidly through social media. You don’t have to be famous to become an influencer – you just need great ideas.”

The social and environmental story behind a product, as well as its health and wellness credentials, also have greater influence than in the past, the colours expert continued. “Creative use of colour can generate a sense of joy, excitement, and wonder, but it’s also hugely important for brands to be able to tell a positive story about how those colours were created. We can deliver such vibrant shades that consumers might think they’re artificial, but EXBERRY colours are all made from edible fruit, vegetables, and plants using physical processing methods. We colour food with food – all of our raw materials are food and they can be eaten throughout the whole production process. No additives are used in the production process either, so they support clean and clear labels. We use plant-based, edible raw materials that people know and trust. This is in line with expectations for healthy products. People want to know where their food is coming from, who made it and how it was made. We’ve also created a front-of-pack “Coloured with fruit & vegetables” logo to provide instant reassurance to consumers.”

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