In the dairy aisle (and elsewhere), crowing about a formulation’s natural colors barely merits a pat on the back anymore. These days, consumers expect natural ingredients — colors included — in their food and drink, and they won’t settle for less.

Need proof? Data from global market research firm Mintel from 2017 show that 78% of new products launched in North America used naturally sourced colors, which is remarkable when you consider how recently such colors were considered “fringe.”

So now that natural colorants are table stakes, the challenge — for colorants and, by extension, their suppliers — shifts beyond just being natural to standing out from the crowd, both to consumers and to dairy manufacturers. That means working harder in formulations and adding more value to finished products — and looking attractive while doing so.

Can the current crop get the job done? Experts say so.

“Manufacturers now have more opportunities than ever to color products naturally without compromising stability,” said Tammi Higgins, global business unit head, colors and real food ingredients for Lycored, Orange, N.J. “Even better, natural colors offer new ways to position products as fresher and more natural.”


Seeing for themselves

Color suppliers have long had their eye on the natural space, collecting ample consumer insights from which to direct their research and development (R&D) efforts.

For example, Higgins said, 88% of respondents to Lycored’s “True Colors” study claimed they would be willing to pay more — up to 47% more, on average — for a product made with natural flavors and colors.

In the recent “Natural Food Ingredient and Coloring Sentiment Study” from Chr. Hansen Inc., Milwaukee, and Chicago-based research firm Technomic, 62% of consumers said they wanted solely natural colors in their foods. As for how much more they’d pay for all-natural, about 8% more seemed to be their sweet spot.

And in its most recent clean-label consumer study, Kalsec, Kalamazoo, Mich., found that the top attribute both U.S. and global consumers associate with clean labels is the absence of artificial ingredients, including synthetic colors.


Natural: the new normal

By contrast, the Innova New Product Database shows that only 22% of products introduced into the dairy segment in the last year contained synthetic colors, noted Carol Locey, director of product management for colors at Kalsec.

The take-home lesson: Natural is consumers’ new normal. Dairy brands had better take heed — and many are.

“There’s been a very clear but gradual shift toward natural colors across the dairy industry, particularly in the U.S. market,” Higgins noted. “Dairy products are already perceived as natural and healthy, so it’s important that their ingredient lists and appearance reflect this.”

That reflection applies not only to colorants themselves, but also to the adjunct ingredients associated with them. As Dina Dix, applications manager for natural colors at Chr. Hansen, pointed out, most of her dairy customers shifted to natural.

“We’re seeing customers move to even cleaner ingredients without emulsifiers or other carriers — using more fruit and vegetable juices instead of other natural sources.”

Teresa Kilgore, sweet & beverage category manger, Diana Food, Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., has also noticed a broadening of the natural umbrella.

“We’ve even gotten very focused on carriers and which ones are allowed, and everyone wants everything to be 100% fruit- or vegetable-sourced,” she said.


To switch or not to switch

While the movement toward natural colors is gaining momentum, it hasn’t yet swept all dairy formulations into its tide.

“The majority of our dairy customers are either completely natural or are launching new products using natural colors,” said Alexandra Sirosky, technical service manager for dairy, Sensient Colors, St. Louis. Even so, she continued, “We see some iconic products staying with FD&C colors for now, such as frozen novelties from the ice cream truck.” (FD&C colors refer to any of the synthetic dyes permitted for use in foods, drugs and cosmetics by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 and later legislation.)

Jeff Greaves, president, Food Ingredient Solutions, Teterboro, N.J., described natural-color holdouts as “primarily lower-cost items, store brands and some items targeting children where a very bright, almost neon color is desired.”


Concerned about comparisons

Sanford “Sandy” Golden-Dukes, director, business development and operations, IFC Solutions, Linden, N.J., also sees holdouts.

“There’s very clear growth in our natural colors lines and even larger growth in the organic colors lines,” he said. “This doesn’t mean we’ve seen any drop in our FD&Cs.”

That persistence proves that even in our clean-label era, most brands rely on both natural and FD&C colors.

“It’s actually rare for companies to make a full, 100% switch to natural, although many companies say they’ll eventually go that way,” Golden-Dukes said.

He attributed their reluctance to concerns about comparisons between reformulated and legacy lines.

“Natural colors aren’t as vibrant,” he explained, “and the products they’re in often cost more. So other than the perceived health benefits, it’s usually not as attractive to consumers to switch.”

Jody Renner-Nantz, applications manager for DDW, The Color House, Louisville, Ky., agreed.

“The U.S. seems to have a selective attitude toward simple labels,” she said. “Requests for natural ingredients are most common in new development projects, but it’s tough to make changes in established brands.”


Contradictions abound

What Renner-Nantz called a “selective attitude” might more bluntly be labeled a contradictory one, and according to some color suppliers, there’s a lot of it out there.

“Consumers are hungry for labels that they understand and that have familiar terms,” Kilgore observed. “But they also reject their performance. They want to see the vibrancy of artificial colors, but without seeing those colors on labels. So there’s a lack of understanding from the consumer about what’s realistic with cleaner ingredients.”

That lack of understanding extends to some product developers, too.

“Colors are so complex,” Kilgore continued. “We have to teach our customers these complexities so they can understand how to frame it to their consumers. There’s a big learning curve for us all as we grow into this natural-color world.”

Case in point: Many of Kilgore’s dairy customers want to color and flavor their products with the same ingredient — “and that’s something that’s incredibly difficult,” she said. “They want strawberry yogurt that’s colored with strawberry. But if you try to color yogurt with strawberry, you’re going to wind up with grey yogurt.”


Inherently instable

Such is the nature of natural colorants, which are inherently less predictable, stable or agreeable than their synthetic counterparts.

As Greaves pointed out, “Many natural colors are indicators and can change shade with pH. Also, many react and fade more quickly in the presence of divalent/trivalent metal ions like calcium.”

Exposure to light via clear packaging — not to mention the depredations of hot fill, pasteurization and other high-temperature processes — pose further threats.

“Even when temperatures are relatively low — 110 degrees Fahrenheit, for example — the exposure time can cause colors to fade,” Renner-Nantz said.

Live and active cultures (LAC) also have their way with natural colors.

Golden-Dukes worked with a yogurt manufacturer interested in coloring its product with a natural red.

“After a few days,” he recalled, “the colors seemed to fade despite their stability and quality. After a few more tests we learned the color was being ‘eaten’ — for lack of a better word — by the LAC, which was a first experience of anything like that for us.”


Solutions from the source

One way color suppliers are solving the natural color stability problem is by improving the source materials themselves.

“Because they’re agricultural products,” Dix explained, natural colors “can be less robust to certain food processing techniques. Active breeding and research projects on the R&D and sourcing side to fill customer gaps in shade and performance are ongoing.”

To some extent, FDA’s approval of coloring sources limits the industry’s attempts to grow the natural base.

“But changes in farming and processing are always advancing,” Golden-Dukes said. “Different parts of the world offer slight differences in products. Curcumin is bright yellow, but from some countries it has a more reddish hue, which might give it unique properties in certain foods.”

Sirosky puts her money on vertical integration of the natural-color supply chain.

“While improving and expanding extraction capabilities can certainly help reduce cost-in-use of natural colors, the major gains will come from improved color-crop seeds and innovative agricultural practices,” she predicted.

Her company’s seed-to-shelf program focuses on optimizing pigment concentrations at the seed level to grow highly concentrated color crops.

The consensus is that this will be a collaborative effort.

“As the natural-color market grows, more raw-material suppliers are emerging, and we need to work with them to ensure that they meet the demands of global regulatory bodies,” Locey said.


Seeing red

And industry needs to ensure natural colorants meet the demands of dairy processing.

Consider, for example, the continued search for an optimal natural red.

“Red beet may offer beautiful shades from pink to red, but because it fades with heat, processors have to use overages to accommodate the loss,” Renner-Nantz noted. “With some systems, you can add the color nearer the end of heating, but you have to make sure you pasteurize the color before adding it.”

While some vegetable-based anthocyanins perform well in dairy systems, manufacturers must exercise caution in the upper-pH range, lest the anthocyanins degrade, Renner-Nantz continued.

Carmine remains the gold standard among natural options for hue and stability, but its drawbacks — it’s neither kosher nor halal, and there’s that whole “it comes from a bug” thing — disqualify it for some processors. And though lycopene holds stable regardless of pH or heat treatment, the red shades it produces aren’t always what brands are looking for.

The upshot: All options for a practicable natural red “require thoughtful application and processing knowledge,” Renner-Nantz concluded.


With a trace

Turning back to consumers, many increasingly crave a feel-good story behind their foods and drinks — and the colors in them. That’s put a spotlight on colorant traceability with which suppliers are only beginning to grapple.

“When we used to talk sustainability with customers,” Kilgore said, “it was mainly a nice fluffy marketing story to have. But today customers expect us to tell them what we’re doing for sustainability. We need to show them figures to prove we’re on that path because they’re putting those figures into stories for their consumers.”

The stories often come wrapped in certifications of the colors’ fair-trade, non-GMO and organic status. “And as many dairies are already close with their USDA auditors,” Golden-Dukes pointed out, “organic is usually the certification many companies are going with.”

For her part, Dix believes consumers will continue to push for colorants with origin stories and transparency cred, as such qualities indicate “how clean a food is.”

Indeed, 93% of American consumers want to know everything that goes into the food they buy, according to the Food Marketing Institute’s Transparency Imperative 2018.

“Labels that highlight an ingredient’s origin equal the cleanest labels,” noted Tammi Geiger, marketing manager for natural colors, North America at Chr. Hansen. “This also includes how sustainable sourcing is for manufacturers and suppliers.”


Come together

It all adds up to a lot for dairy developers to sort through. Fortunately, colorant suppliers have done a lot of that sorting for them.

“We like to work closely with our customers, as natural and organic colors are surprisingly technical ingredients to work with,” Golden-Dukes said. “A customer might call and say, ‘Send me your best red!’ But for naturals, what’s best for one product might not be for yours.”

On the developer’s end, the challenge usually is knowing which natural color performs best in which application and the appropriate usage rate, Sirosky noted.

“Product formulators can often shorten their development cycle by discussing project needs with their color manufacturer, who can provide recommendations for a stable natural color in their application,” she said.

And as far as Greaves is concerned, a full natural palette is already out there for the taking. True, it may not be identical to the synthetics we’ve grown used to.

“I just think there needs to be enough demand from the market for naturals to outstrip synthetics,” he said.  


What’s in a name?

Any discussion of “natural” versus “artificial” colors should begin with the caveat that FDA regulations don’t permit the labeling of any color as “natural.” And in contrast to the case with flavors, regulations don’t distinguish between what’s actually natural and what’s artificial.

Rather, FDA distinguishes between colors that must be batch certified — that is, FDA checks each lot to ensure that harmful components fall below threshold levels — and those that are exempt from such certification. It’s into the latter category that most of what we consider “natural” colors fall.

“That exempt-from-certification category also comprises some colorants that might be synthetic, like beta carotene, or that are always synthetic, like iron oxides, titanium dioxide, canthaxanthin and apo-carotenal,” noted Jeff Greaves, president, Food Ingredient Solutions, Teterboro, N.J. “Certified colors must be labeled by a standard name — FD&C Red #40 or Red 40, for example — but naturals have the option of being labeled by name, like beet juice color or simply declared as ‘color added.’”

Carmine, a minor allergen, is an exception.

“There is, interestingly, an exception to labeling colors at all in the dairy regulations,” Greaves noted, “except sensitizers like Yellow #5 or allergens like carmine. But I don’t recall ever seeing a dairy product containing nonlabeled colors.”

Readers can consult current color labeling regulations at greater depth at 21 CFR 101.22(k).