Food Colorant Trends & Realities

Originally Published: February 23, 2017
Last Updated: February 9, 2021
Colorants sourced from fruits and vegetables, such as spinach, beets and tomatoes, provide a natural color source for applications such as pasta.

February 23, 2017 – Winston Boyd, Ph.D., Food Industry Consultant, FocusInternational, began his presentation with a discussion of the various social, cultural and scientific factors that appear to be shaping the current clean label trend. He took particular note of the roles that consumers, activists and scientists take in shaping the discussion.

Turning to the role of food colorants in the clean label conversation, he looked at the regulatory framework that determines which food colorants are permitted for use in the U.S. and how regulations affect the way food colorants are labeled. In the U.S., color additives are categorized as certified and exempt from certification. Most exempt-from certification colorants are derived from natural sources and may be labeled as “color added,” “artificial color” or by naming the ingredient and function (i.e., “colored with red beet juice”). Boyd briefly mentioned similarities and differences between colorant regulations and trends in the EU and the U.S.

Negative perceptions of synthetic food colorants are the driving force behind interest and growth in the use of natural food colorants. This creates opportunities for companies attempting to clean up their labels, but there are also many challenges. Boyd highlighted a few of the top issues encountered in the rush to replace synthetic colorants with colorants from natural sources. Decades of synthetic colorant use has created some fairly demanding performance expectations that must be met.

Generally, synthetic colors tend to be broadly useful; efficacious across many applications; and offer vivid colors, predictable behavior and significantly lower cost than natural food colorants. In contrast, while exempt-from certification colors continue to grow in popularity, they are inclined to be more narrowly useful and efficacious, less vivid, less predictable and, generally, more expensive. They might have limited availability, due to crop variation or harvest conditions.

Boyd’s presentation also covered general information on solubility, stability and ease-of-use of colorings. More detailed information regarding the complexities of two classes of natural colorant, carotenoids and anthocyanins, illustrated some of the application and performance challenges.

For example, the red color of anthocyanins that is prevalent at low pH gives way to a blue color, as the pH increases. The blue color form is less stable and degrades irreversibly to a colorless state. Also, a dramatic reduction in color intensity is seen as pH increases from 1 to 5.

Strategies such as the addition of antioxidants and/or co-pigmentation increase a coloring’s stability. In the case of red radish anthocyanin, the co-pigmentation effect is based on an intramolecular folding which boosts stability at high pH, due to interactions between positions within the molecule. Boyd also provided insights into several reasons for the higher cost-in-use of natural vs. synthetic colorants.

Boyd discussed the role consumer misunderstandings play in driving the clean label trend. Noting specific rules of thumb—such as “If you can’t pronounce it, it doesn’t belong in food”—he cited specific and safe food ingredients that have been given a less-than-favorable reputation by such simplistic thinking.

“Clean Label Trends and Food Colorant Realities,” Winston Boyd, Ph.D., Food Industry Consultant,, 224-255-5376

The summary above is an excerpt from the “2016 Clean Label Conference Magazine.”

This presentation was given at the 2016 Clean Label Conference. To download presentations from this event, go to

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