The colour of a food product can have a big influence on how tempting we find it. Food manufacturers take great care in making sure the colour of their products just right. After all, selecting the perfect colour can help make a product stand out on the supermarket shelves, and if it stands out for the right reasons, it’s more likely to end up in a consumer’s shopping basket. Traditionally, artificial colorants have been the substances of choice for many manufacturers when adding colour to their products. But today, there is a bit of a revolution going on in the food industry.
More and more consumers are demanding “clean label” products containing natural ingredients that have undergone little processing. Long, unfamiliar names on labels, concerns over the safety of artificial additives and the prospect of having hyperactive children have all put people off buying foods containing anything that sounds synthetic.
Luckily for manufacturers trying to meet the demand for clean label products, they won’t have to resort to dull-coloured drinks or colourless confectionery. An increasing number of manufacturers are throwing out the artificial colorants they used in the past and turning to “colouring foods” instead. These colouring foods, which are basically strongly coloured foods that can be used as ingredients to add colour to other foods, are starting to have a big impact in the food industry, and it has been reported that the global market for colouring foods could expand by as much as 9% per year.
The EU guidance notes on colouring foods
It’s not just the trend for more natural products driving manufacturers to change their ingredients, though. The food industry has also been reacting to EU guidance notes on the classification of food extracts as food colours (food additives) or colouring foods (foods with colouring properties) that were issued in November 2013.
These guidance notes were intended to provide a working tool for business operators and enforcement authorities of the Member States when considering if a substance should be classed as a colour or a colouring food.
Manufacturers were recommended to start following the principles developed in the guidance notes from the beginning of January 2014, and adapt their products accordingly. By the 29th November 2015, it is recommended that all food products placed on the market should be in line with these guidance notes.
Colouring foods and food colours - more different than they sound
The definition of a colouring food isn’t as simple as just being any old colouring substance obtained from a product, such as a fruit, vegetable or herb, that can be eaten as a food. The characteristics required for a substance to be classed as a colouring food are far more specific, and some colorants that we might think of as being natural - carotenes, curcumin and lycopene, for example, do not come under this category.
The definitions provided in Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008 on food additives, which it is intended should be read in conjunction with the guidance notes, make things a bit clearer.
Food colours are described in Annex I of the regulation as "substances which add or restore colour in a food, and include natural constituents of foods and natural sources which are normally not consumed as foods as such and not normally used as characteristic ingredients of food”.
Food additives more generally, meanwhile, are described in Article 3(2) (a) of the regulation as “any substance not normally consumed as a food in itself and not normally used as a characteristic ingredient of food, whether or not it has nutritive value, the intentional addition of which to food for a technological purpose in the manufacture, processing, preparation, treatment, packaging, transport or storage of such food results, or may be reasonably expected to result, in it or its by-products becoming directly or indirectly a component of such foods”.
On the other hand, substances not considered to be food additives, according to Article 3(2) (a) (ii) of the same regulation, include: “foods, whether dried or in concentrated form, including flavourings incorporated during the manufacturing of compound foods, because of their aromatic, sapid or nutritive properties together with a secondary colouring effect”.
Foods and flavourings with a secondary colouring effects are therefore eliminated from the definition of food additives, and from the scope of the regulation.
Products that are normally consumed as foods or used as characteristic ingredients of food are also not be considered as food additives. So fruit juices, tomato concentrates and coffee, all of which have potential colouring properties, can safely be labelled as ingredients, even if they were only added to a product to give it a bit of a colour boost.
Selection by extraction
As the regulations state, food colours (the additives) include “natural constituents of foods and natural sources which are normally not consumed as foods”. Extracts derived from fruit, vegetables or herbs, therefore, cannot automatically be classified as colouring foods, even if the source they came from could be eaten as a food.
Whether an extract from these sources counts as a colouring food depends on whether the way it was extracted was selective or not.
With processes like drying, concentrating, milling or cooking, foods retain their essential characteristics, and so can be regarded as a colouring foods. However, extraction can be carried out with varying degrees of selectivity.
If the pigments in the original product are extracted selectively relative to nutritive or aromatic constituents of the food, the extract is no longer considered to retain the essential characteristics of the food and it will be classed as a food colour. If, however, the extraction is not selective and the extract retains the same ratio of constituents as the starting product had, it will be a colouring food.
This explains why the “natural” colorants like carotenes, curcumin and lycopene, do not count as colouring foods and come under the “additive” category instead.
Implications for labelling
The categorization of colouring substances as “food colours” or “colouring foods” has implications for the way things are labelled. As colouring foods are not additives, they do not require the same legal approval that additives do and there is no E number associated with them (although they still need to be used in accordance with the rules of the general food law).
And while some “natural” colorants do come from natural sources, they must be classified as additives which, it is thought, could create problems for manufacturers and consumers seeking “clean label” formulations.
Colouring foods, however, can be listed with names such as “Colouring Food (carrot concentrate)”, or “Colouring Food (concentrate of grapes, elderberries)”, and this, it is thought, should meet the “clean label” requirements that food companies and consumers are after.
The trouble with nature
But while making the switch to colouring foods might support a company’s clean label strategy, relying on natural sources for colour doesn’t come without its challenges.
Colour tones of the crops used as source materials may differ from one harvest to the next, making it difficult to achieve a good level of consistency, and if the perfect colour can’t be achieved with the varieties available or by mixing different colours together, entirely new varieties might have to be bred to get the desired result. Stability under certain heat, light and pH conditions could cause problems too, and all this could have an impact on the pricing of the ingredients.
Luckily for companies looking to use colouring foods, an increasingly large number of approved colouring foods seem to be appearing on the market. One major player in the world of colouring foods claims to have over 400 different colours on offer, which can be added to everything from soft drinks to ice cream, dairy products and confectionery, and even to baby food.
It certainly seems to be getting easier – and more beneficial – for food companies to make the switch to colouring foods. So, will we see a big rise in the use of colouring foods in the next few months as manufacturers strive to make any changes needed to meet the guidance notes? I guess we’ll have to keep checking the backs of our packs to find out.
Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash