Exemption to the rules

The CFR lays out a clear definition of what natural flavors are, but it’s mum on the topic of natural colors. Rather, the closest it comes to defining natural colors is in 21 CFR 73, where it identifies those color additives exempt from FD&C certification. These include a handful of label-friendly fruit and vegetable juices extracted from carrots, elderberries, beets and the like; spices and spice derivatives like turmeric and annatto; all four classes of caramel color; the carotenoid pigments lycopene and beta carotene; and a host of others that wind up on the list as FDA issues premarket approvals through its Color Additive Petition (CAP) process.

Label readers might recognize many of these as ostensibly natural ingredients — and the colorants in fact may come from natural sources. But according to the Code, products still must identify them as added color and cannot describe them as natural unless they occur naturally in the product they’re coloring. In other words, beet juice may appear as a natural color in ice cream, but only if the ice cream is made with beets. And unless you’re a hipster chef in San Francisco or Brooklyn, you’re probably not making beet ice cream.

All of which adds to the uncertainty over what a natural color really is. Moreover, as Stefan Hake, CEO of GNT USA Inc., Tarrytown, N.Y., said, “Based on the consumer perception of ‘natural,’ clear distinctions exist among colorants within the exempt category.” One need look no further than carmine, he said, which is an exempt color, but, “like many other exempts, is processed with organic solvents and, perhaps most damningly, derived from an insect.”

Given these nuances, “We must acknowledge what consumers believe to be ‘natural,’” Hake concluded. On the safe side, “Fruit and vegetable juice colors, which are physically processed with water, clearly offer today’s consumer what they are looking for in a natural color,” he said. “As the field of ‘exempt’ colors widens every day, understanding these distinctions in content and processing will serve a critical role.”