Expert tips for formulating with natural colors

Customers are clamoring for foods and beverages with natural colors. Lionel Lesegretain, business manager of the NAT Color division for Naturex, paints a picture of the difficulties formulators face in meeting demand—and how to overcome the challenge.

It may come as no surprise that consumers are the main force behind the demand for products that are colored naturally.  This is because of studies like the Southampton study, which focused on the negative impact of artificial colors on children’s behavior, as well as the growing demand for products with a more natural appeal and simpler ingredient lists. 

With the right expertise and color know-how, especially in stability, you can find an array of alternative color solutions. Red hues are extremely popular because of their attractive color and vibrancy, particularly in food targeted at children such as sweet drinks and confections. Azo colorants could easily be replaced by carmine, but there is also a growth in demand for substitutes for carmine (Starbucks, anyone?), which is produced with carminic acid derived from a species of scale insect.

Artificial and natural colors have different properties and therefore different technical challenges. The issue of stability can sometimes become tricky in various applications. For example, it is difficult to to find red hues from a plant source (without carmine) that will be stable when used in non-acidic applications that will be subjected to heat (as in meat processing or baked goods). Anthocyanins’ color changes at a high pH and beetroot does not resist high temperatures.

The answer is to blend together several pigments to find the best solution that balances each pigment’s sensitivity and application constraints in terms of pH and temperature. Finding the right blend, in the right proportion, is not an easy task. You may need to tailor a solution for your specific application needs.

Adding red, orange, green or blue to your product? Here are your natural color solutions.

Natural color solutions for red, orange, green and blue

Red hues

All fruit and vegetable concentrates providing red shades contain anthocyanins (from purple sweet potato, black carrot, radish, etc.) that are very sensitive to pH. Hues will vary from red in acidic conditions to blue-grey in a basic medium. This makes them a perfect ingredient to be included in acidic applications like beverages and confectionery. The beverage, confectionery and dairy sectors are very dynamic at the moment in terms of product development. 

Anthocyanins are currently a huge field of investigation. Their red hues vary from orange to blue depending on the source material used. Industry groups continue to investigate new pigment sources—several fruits and flowers are being studied for their hue properties and their response to pH. Stability is a big issue for this pigment family because as pH increases, stability decreases. Intra-molecular or extra-molecular co-pigmentation can be part of the solution to this problem.  Companies like Naturex that have been investigating these pigment sources for years have experience in dealing with the challenges involved.

Orange hues

The compatibility and the stability of carotenoid emulsions in drinks are another technical challenge where companies are innovating and bringing tailor-made solutions to the market. There are possible interactions between emulsions and several critical variables including the flavor oil, the presence of alcohol, high temperature in high brix at low pH, some fruits such as apple and mango, stabilizers and clouding agents. To stabilize carotenoid-based colors Naturex uses natural antioxidants principally from rosemary extract. 

Green hues

Due to the US Color Regulations, the use of green pigments (from chlorophyll) is very restricted and it is therefore almost impossible to propose any natural green options.

Blue hues

At the moment, the only true natural blue color comes from the phycocyanins that provide the blue in cyanobacteria such as spirulina (cyanobacteria are also known as blue-green algae). But Spirulina is not recognized in the US as a coloring agent. In any case, working with spirulina is very challenging because of its sensitivity to acidity and heat.

Formulators continue to explore the huge field of fruit, vegetable and flower concentrates. These specific raw materials are mainly anthocyanin-based, and depending on the source, their pH tolerance can vary. One or several of them may provide a stable, attractive blue at a suitable pH range for food applications.

As the name suggests “natural colors”, are sourced from natural sources, leaving them susceptible to the vagaries of Mother Nature, which can affect the quality and quantity of crops. As is the case with botanical extraction for any reason, the active compounds sought can be present to varying degrees depending on agricultural conditions. To combat this issue a supplier should have a robust supply chain in place.

Natural colors do have an additional cost compared to synthetic colors. But in the end creating a product using natural colors brings an added value to the product in the eyes of the consumer.

Natural coloring suppliers

A number of major companies offer natural color solutions. Here’s a selection:


NAT Color division offers two product lines:  VegBrite, a range of colors from fruit concentrates and eColor, colors produced from extracts.

D.D. Williamson

Offers natural colors from beta carotene, annatto pigment from cheese and a blue pigment dervived from anthocyanins derived from red cabbage juice.

FMC BioPolymer

Recently launched at Engredea, FMC’s natural color line includes ingredients from annatto to anthocyanins to betacarotene.

Sensient Colors

Provides a full range of natural colors for the confectionery, beverage, processed foods, bakery, dairy and pet food industries.

International Foodcraft Assoc.

Offers the Coloreze line of natural colors, including a green color from a proprietary blend of ingredients.

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