Suppliers discuss natural and exempt colors, and how to match the color to the food.

Donna Berry
Product Development Editor

Dairy Foods talked to:

Rajesh Cherian, manager-application support-natural colors, Roha Food Colors

Chad Ford, product manager-colors and specialty ingredients, Wild Flavors Inc.

Emina Goodman, technical support manager-beverage and dairy group, Sensient Colors LLC

Jim Hamernik, research and development director, Flavorchem

Diane-Louise Hnat, senior technical marketing manager, DSM Nutritional Products

Rodger Jonas, director-national sales, PL Thomas

George Kean, director-colors R&D, Kalsec Inc.

Stephen Lauro, technical services, colorMaker Inc.

Byron Madkins, senior director-product development and applications-colors, Chr. Hansen Inc.

Jody Renner-Nantz, application scientist, D.D. Williamson

Kasi Sundaresan, manager-research, development and quality, iTi Tropicals Inc.

Color plays an important role in food product development. In the dairy foods category, colorants are typically used to enhance or improve the color that consumers expect of their butter, ice cream or yogurt, rather than allure or shock, as in other categories such as beverage and confection. 

In the United States, synthetic food colors are classified by the Food and Drug Adminstration as color additives subject to certification (Title 21 Part 74 of the Code of Federal Regulations). They are certified with an FD&C number (indicating it has been tested for safety and is approved for use in foods, drugs and cosmetics, or FD&C), and further classified as standardized dyes or lakes.

Dyes are a concentrated source of color and are water soluble and oil insoluble. Lakes, on the other hand, are made by combining dyes with salts to make them water-insoluble compounds. Thus, they are best described as providing color by dispersion. Lakes are considered to be more stable than dyes and are ideal for coloring products that either contain fat or lack sufficient moisture to dissolve dyes.

 Seven dyes were initially approved under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Over time, several have been delisted and replaced. Today there are still seven dyes, which can be combined into an infinite number of colors; hence, the seven are considered primary colors.

FDA also provides a list of color additives that are exempt from certification (21 CFR 73). Some have synthetic origins or are processed in such a way that the perceived naturalness of the exempt color is questioned by natural foods authorities.

Dairy Foods spoke with 11 suppliers of food colors to get their perspective of the industry. Here’s what they had to say. 

Dairy Foods: Are there any instances when it is impossible to avoid certified colors in dairy foods?

Renner-Nantz: It’s almost never impossible to avoid certified colors in dairy foods; however matching the exact hue and stabilities of certified colors with exempt colors is where the challenge lies. It is easier in the hue ranges of yellow to orange and pink to red. Green and blue hues present a challenge over the wide pH range of dairy products. Blue hues are usually formulated with anthocyanins, which are blue at pH 7. Green is achieved through the mixing of blue and yellow, typically from turmeric. These blue and green hues have limited use since the blue hues degrade at neutral pH, typical of milk and some ice creams. Blue and green are also a challenge in low pH dairy products, such as yogurts and smoothies, since anthocyanins revert to a red hue in low pH foods. For the most part, dairy products are refrigerated or frozen and protected from light, so the light stability of pigments is not an issue. In terms of heat, exempt colors can withstand high-temperature short-time (HTST) pasteurization; however. most will not withstand ultra-high temperature (UHT) processing.

Kean: One of the more difficult situations is using anthocyanins such as grape or black currant to color milk or ice cream pink. This is because the pH of milk and ice cream is typically greater than 5, and anthocyanin colors are not stable at this pH. The result is an unstable blue-gray color. There are other exempt colors such as beet and carmine that do produce stable pink hues under these conditions.  

Goodman: Natural color technology has advanced significantly during the past few years and we have been able to provide a wider variety of shades, allowing the dairy industry to have other options beyond certified colors. However, replicating the rich blue and green shades can still be a challenge.

Cherian: Except when you need dark blues or bright greens, exempt colors are quite common in the dairy industry. For example, cheese has traditionally been colored with annatto, where protein interaction is an important factor in binding the pigment to milk protein. Butter has a standard of identity that allows for addition of beta-carotene, the naturally occurring colorant found in cows milk. Apo-carotenal, paprika oleoresin and turmeric are used in cheese spreads, dips, cheese powders and dairy-based dry blends. Yogurts and dairy beverages use water-soluble colors such as carmine, annatto, beta-carotene, beet juice and turmeric concentrate to achieve specific shades of fruit.

Madkins: Exempt colors are the primary choice for the cheese and yogurt categories. Annatto is typically used to color cheese. It offers functionality not obtainable from any other color, as annatto specifically binds to the curd and does not wash away with the whey in the manufacturing process. Carmine is used frequently to obtain bright red and pink shades in yogurt that contains fruit preparations. Carmine is the only color that will bind to the fruit pieces in fruit preparations, providing a much more attractive final product by not allowing the fruit pieces to look washed out or gray/brown over time.

Jonas: Botanical extracts can now bridge the gap for many of the color issues affecting a switch from lakes and dyes. What must be determined is how the manufacturing process, times and temperatures, pH and other factors impact the ingredient to be used. The other key parameter is storage conditions and expected shelf life. It is not enough to get the color right, you must meet the requirements for shelf life.

Dairy Foods: Though exempt colors may be an option in certain dairy foods applications, when does it make sense for a manufacturer to stick with certified colors?

Goodman: Companies who do not feel their consumers will see the value in changing to natural colors may choose to remain with certified colors.  It really becomes a brand positioning decision by each company.

Sundaresan: Exempt colors are often very expensive and usually require higher usage levels when compared to synthetic colors. Plus, many exempt colors are not very stable in different conditions, such as varying pH and temperature.


Madkins: The use of exempt colors does typically involve a higher price than corresponding synthetic colors. However, as extraction methods and formulation concepts are becoming more optimized and improved, the cost differential between the use of natural and synthetic colors is not as notable as it was five or more years ago. The greatest color challenge with naturals is with blue and green shades. There are many options currently being evaluated for petitioning and FDA approval, including colors currently approved in other parts of the world.

Ford: Exempt colors typically are more expensive than certified colors. The reasons for this are the cost of bringing the raw materials, such as fruits and vegetables, to market versus say, producing a chemical in a lab. Use rates are also typically higher with exempt colors, as there is more “stuff” that comes along with them besides just pure pigment. Also, many manufacturers expect exact matches to their current products, but exempt colors may not always achieve the same vivid “artificial” look that comes with some certified colors, though they may be in the same ballpark. So, if manufacturers are unwilling to compromise on cost-in-use and potential shade differences, it may make more sense to stick with certified colors.

Hamernik: Certified colors are generally stronger, less expensive and provide the typical bright colors that consumers are used to. In order to achieve a similar color using exempt colors it is often necessary to use a more expensive color at a higher level, and even then, the resulting stability and color shade are not as good. Exempt colors can additionally create off notes when used at higher levels.

Lauro: One of the advantages of certified colors over those that are exempt is their extended shelf life, but this is seldom an issue with most dairy foods, which display a relatively short refrigerated shelf life. Another advantage enjoyed by certified colors is their significantly lower cost-of-use. While they may be priced similarly, pound-for-pound, certified colors are much stronger, whether in dye or lake form, and can therefore be used at levels as low as one one-hundreth of what you would need with an exempt color. Thus, the cost-of-use of the certified colors may become a factor in low-margin, high-volume dairy products. Another advantage of certified colors is their ease of use. Minor color adjustments can often be made at the end of the process by personnel on the production line. This simply is not possible with exempt colors. The latter requires an in-depth understanding of both the color and the food system. An example is lemon-flavored ice cream. Sometimes the processor selects turmeric as a natural yellow color for this type of product, which is a good color choice. But the package may have a cellophane window, allowing the consumer to see the finished product.  This is good for the consumer but bad for the turmeric, which is sensitive to light. The turmeric exposed to light in the package’s window fades and when the consumer opens the package, he or she may be greeted by a dull whitish circle on the surface of the ice cream surrounded by bright yellow lemon-flavored product.

Dairy Foods: The term artificial colors is associated with certified lakes and dyes, and when certified colors are not used in a product formulation, marketers can use language such as “does not include any artificial colors.” Can you please comment on why most of the time they cannot say “naturally colored?”  

Kean: FDA only recognizes colors that are either exempt or non-exempt from certification. FDA does not recognize use of the term “natural color,” except in very rare instance when a manufacturer is using the same ingredient as the food to color it, for instance coloring cherry filling with cherry concentrate to enhance the red color.

Renner-Nantz: Generally speaking, naturally derived colorings - those exempt from certification - are derived from natural sources, and synthetic/certified/FD&C color additives are manufactured from petroleum-based raw materials. The labeling of exempt colors continues to be a source of confusion. It seems intuitive that exempt colors should be labeled as natural since they are derived from nature; however, FDA has not defined the term natural as it relates to food colors and labeling exempt colors as natural is not permitted. However, exempt colors may be noted on the front principle display panel as “derived from natural sources.” If a food product is colored with an ingredient that is common to that food, for example, elderberry yogurt colored with elderberry color, then the product can be labeled as “naturally colored.” 

Hnat: Artificial color, in the narrowest terms, refers to azo compounds, which are FD&C colors and must be cited on ingredient legends by the color and number. In the broadest sense, a color that is not inherent to a product, e.g., beet juice in strawberry ice cream, is also an artificial color.  Even though beet juice is extracted from a natural source, it cannot be called a natural color. When it comes to beta-carotene, labeling options include: “color added (beta-carotene),” “beta-carotene as color” or simply, “artificial color.” In the case where beta-carotene is derived from a natural source, it can be labeled as “beta-carotene as color (from a natural source).”

Ford: Color additives that are exempt from certification are generally termed “natural” within the industry, but are referred to as exempt colors in accordance with FDA regulations. According to FDA, an added color is natural only if it is inherently natural to the food holding the color. Still, the U.S. food industry commonly refers to exempt colors as natural colors.

Hamernik: A color might be derived from natural sources, but is not considered natural when it’s used in a way not found in nature. For example, beet concentrate might be added to strawberry ice cream to obtain a pink-red color. Beet concentrate is natural but is not natural to strawberry ice cream.

Lauro: Strawberry ice cream with added strawberry juice may be marketed as “all natural.”  Unfortunately, it will not be very red because strawberry juice quickly turns brown even when frozen. On the other hand, strawberry ice cream colored with beet juice will be a vibrant red color, but because beet juice is not natural to strawberry ice cream, it is considered an artificial color in this application.

Sundaresan: FDA clearly outlines the labeling requirements for colors. For example, spices such as paprika, turmeric, saffron and others that can be used as colorings, must be declared either by the terms “spice and coloring” or by the actual (common or usual) names, such as “paprika.” Exempt colors can be declared as “artificial color,” “artificial coloring” or by their specific common or usual names such as “caramel coloring” or “colored with beet juice.”

Dairy Foods: Many food industry critics have issues with the perceived naturalness of exempt colors. What is the concern?

Ford: Understanding color additives in the U.S. can be confusing due to the method FDA uses to classify colors. One reason many people become confused understanding color additives is because they look at color additives from the same perspective as flavors. Defining or classifying a flavor is quite different from defining a color additive.

Cherian: Some take issue with the fact that beta-carotene can be extracted from a natural source or prepared synthetically, but either way, it is exempt from certification and the two forms are not differentiated on product labels. The food manufacturer should be responsible and choose a beta-carotene extracted from a natural source if they are marketing the product as one that does not contain artificial ingredients.

Jonas: A purest believes that adding any ingredient for color is not natural. But because a food manufacturer is already mixing several ingredients to make a product, this is an area of much contention.

Lauro: Most of the criticism surrounding natural colors has little to do with how they are extracted and more to do with how they look. The visual appearance of exempt colors is generally far lighter and more pastel than certified colors, which in comparison appear vibrant, strong, almost iridescent. When delving deeper into the methods of extraction, one will discover that oil-soluble colors such as paprika are often solvent extracted. Some question just how natural is an ingredient if it must be extracted by a solvent. But the majority agrees that when compared to the petroleum distillation processes by which all certified colors are created, exempt colors are pretty close to being natural.

Madkins: Within the range of exempt colors, there are many sources and each is derived and extracted in different ways. For example, there are some colors, such as beet juice or purple carrot juice, where the color is simply expressed from the vegetable. In addition, there are colors such as turmeric, which are typically solvent-extracted in order to isolate and purify the color. And there are many different extraction and purification methods in between these two examples. A color like cochineal has an elaborate extraction process, from water extraction of the source to obtain cochineal extract, to the formation of a calcium/aluminum lake, which is by definition, carmine, which is then alkali treated to obtain water-soluble carmine products. We recommend to our customers that they label color products by name. This falls well within and even exceeds FDA requirements. It is also the most informative for the end user. For example, if you are adding carmine and annatto to a yogurt, we recommend that you specifically state both on the label. With carmine, it is an FDA requirement. But they could simply state: carmine, color added. When using color products such as purple sweet potato or black carrot, we recommend that the customer use a statement such as “vegetable juice (for color).” If they want to specifically state the actual color sources, we will also provide that information.

Dairy Foods: Most color suppliers have a few tricks up their sleeve. Can you share any?

Madkins: Color stability in applications is our ultimate priority, and we have a range of microencapsulated natural colors that usually do the trick. We have taken the basic color pigment, such as bixin (annatto), carmine, paprika or turmeric, and have encapsulated it using food-grade ingredients to provide highly stable, water-dispersible pigments. As an example, a standard turmeric emulsion in a beverage usually fades when exposed to light, as turmeric is not very light stable. However, our encapsulated turmeric products will last for months with no loss of color. We also have a line of anthocyanin products (fruit and vegetable juices) where we take advantage of the inter- and intra-molecular interactions that occur between different sources, which in turn, provides increased stability in the finished applications, such as yogurt and dairy-based drinks. 

Goodman: We have made significant advancements in developing an acceptable blue shade. We previewed this exempt color at the 2011 IFT Annual Meeting + Food Expo in several applications, including dairy, and received an overwhelmingly positive response. As a result, we are testing it with interested customers under confidentiality agreements.

Ford: We offer a natural acid-stable blue color derived from fruit juice, which allows for vibrant, even pastel-like colors in dairy that were previously unattainable with natural sources. These colors can be achieved across the pH range of dairy environments. Black and brown hues can even be arrived at through combinations of blue with other natural colors. We also have an emulsion technology that allows for vibrant shades of orange, yellow and reddish-orange in water-soluble form. These emulsions are heat, light and pH stable, which make them well suited for dairy. 

Hnat: Carotenoid blends can produce hues ranging from yellow to orange, and in dairy products, this provides a sense of richness, as the color is perceived as butterfat. It also suggests that the milk came from grass-fed cows, which typically have a beta-carotene-rich diet. Carotenoids are commonly used to color process cheese. The right carotenoid prevents pinking or fading of color, which can happen when the cheese is exposed to light. In addition, some carotenoids can be used to color ice creams and sherbets in the yellow to orange color range.

Sundaresan: We supply fruit purée, which can be used to color various dairy foods. Each fruit is unique, having its own chemistry and stability, and thus usage is application specific. Fruits high in anthocyanins are most suitable in applications with a pH of less than 4. Beta-carotene is stabilized by the presence of ascorbic acid, while ascorbic acid will cause anthocyanins to degrade and fade. So the product developer has to consider different factors before usage of fruit ingredients.

Lauro: It’s all about having an in-depth understanding of the color and the application. For example, a prepared food manufacturer may want to accent a product with blue cheese but cannot afford real Roquefort. A cheesemaker can select a color that delivers a shelf-stable blue-green color to produce a cheese sold as “blue cheese crumbles.”

Cherian: Apart from offering total coloring solutions, we can customize hues and provide shade matching. We also offer caramel color substitutes that are from natural origin.

Hamernik: We work with as many sources as possible to have access to the latest and best raw materials. We can use these items to mix and blend to achieve the desired color. Working closely with customers is key and allows us to thoroughly test the color to achieve the optimum result. 

Kean: If a manufacturer is looking for an all-natural paprika color for spray-dried cheese, we produce an oil-extracted paprika using only soybean or canola oil as the diluent. High-stability annatto and paprika pigments work well in spray-dried cheese, as they offer increased stability during the production of the powdered cheese as well as enhanced storage stability in snack seasonings.

Renner-Nantz: Rather than simply offering a standard coloring, we work with dairy product developers and manufacturers to achieve exact hue wishes, which we validate in their specific product. For example, for an overseas cheese powder manufacturer, we recently converted an oil-soluble carotenoid coloring to a water soluble form of the same hue.

Jonas: Our tomato lycopene is unique in that it provides a stable red color in both acid and neutral environments and it survives HTST processing. We have refined it to include the option to add a blue hue and to not be sensitive to vitamin C. This exempt color can be declared in a number of ways on ingredient statements, including “color (lycopene)” or “tomato extract.” 

Dairy Foods: Looking inside your crystal ball, what’s next in the world of food colors?

Kean: The outlook for food colors is exciting. There is widespread interest in cleaner labels both here and abroad and never before have natural colors been so popular in the U.S. Looking forward, there will be an increased need for low-cost production of raw materials in order to meet the increase in demand. 

Goodman: Aseptic packaging of colors will become increasingly more prevalent, as it allows for preservative-free exempt colors with enhanced shelf life.

Renner-Nantz: Color manufacturers will continue to focus on improving emulsification techniques, which enhance the solubility of oil-soluble colors in water or water-soluble colors in oil. There will be more discussion and focus on nanotechnology from regulatory authorities as color product innovations develop. From a global perspective, color manufacturers will continue to evaluate new anthocyanin-containing fruits and vegetables, especially those with improved light stability that results from greater acylation of its chemical structure.

Madkins: Consumers will continue to prefer foods that are label friendly and with ingredient legends reading “vegetable juice” or “annatto” instead of “FD&C Red No. 40.” Also, cleaner and greener methods for extraction and purification of exempt food colors will be a priority going forward.

Hnat: There will be a continuation of the trend towards evaluation and use of colorants derived from natural sources, as well as the disclosure of the sources of color due to possible sensitivities.

Jonas: Efforts will focus on improving color expression and stability, which should result in lower use levels to achieve the same color. The future is very straight forward, although simple-sounding, the work required is very involved and continuous in nature. Natural sources will eventually be the norm for all color applications. The issues with specific applications will get resolved as new sources and production techniques are developed.