Natural Color in the U.S.

Originally Published: October 2, 2015
Last Updated: February 22, 2021
Many fruits and vegetables provide a natural source for colorants, suitable for clean label products.

October 2, 2015 – Colors are added to food to make up for color losses during processing; to enhance naturally occurring colors; and to add color to foods that would otherwise be colorless or colored differently. Major food manufacturers, such as Nestle, are trying to create clean labels by removing FDA-certified colors so that they can declare “no artificial colors” on their labels, and thus rely on using Natural Colors in the U.S.

FDA regulations make this a tricky proposition. Before 1958, the food industry used potentially dangerous ingredients as food colors. So the FDA created a set of food additive regulations for colors, which are contained in 21CFR, sections 73 and 74.

“All ingredients added for a coloring effect in food are considered color additives. However, colorful food additives, which are added for other functional benefits (such as flavor or texture) and do not change the original color of the food, are not regarded as color additives,” said Ray Matulka, Ph.D., Director of Toxicology with the Burdock Group.

Natural colors in the U.S. that are exempt from certification.

Colors that are exempt from certification by FDA. (Click for downloadable version.)

Colors are classified as either “certified” (synthetic) or “exempt from certification.” Nine certified food colors were approved for use in the U.S. and require batch testing to ensure safety. The exempt colors are derived from natural sources, such as vegetables, animals or minerals. Generally, they have clean-sounding names; do not require batch testing; and are often times thought of as “natural.”

U.S. color regulations may differ from those in other countries. For example, erythrosine is approved for use in the U.S. but only permitted for certain applications in the EU. Coloring agents are considered food ingredients in the EU, rather than color additives.

Titanium dioxide, although a natural color derived from ore, has a chemical-sounding name and has fallen into disfavor with some consumers. There were some concerns about the safety of caramel color, but the FDA evaluated it and determined there was no risk to consumers, said Matulka. In recent years, vegetarians and vegans have shied away from carmine, a coloring ingredient derived from insects, and the FDA now requires that it be specified on the label.

Sometimes coloring ingredients are created by mashing, cooking or concentrating vibrantly colored foods, such as purple sweet potatoes, elderberries and grapes. The color of these natural color ingredients can change or diminish, due to time or processing, and industry has developed innovative packaging and stabilizers to protect these colors.

Some natural colors, such as paprika and turmeric, can significantly impact food flavor. In the U.S., only colors that are listed in the CFR may legally be used in foods. However, fruit and vegetable juices, such as lime juice powder, can be used to impart color and do not require a color additive petition.

“Developing a color additive petition is no small task,” explained Matulka. The petition should include the common or usual name of the ingredient; what’s known about the source material; information about any toxic components that could come through the extraction process; and data on any heavy metals, solvent residues or pesticide residues. Stability data should be documented and reflect actual use and exposure. FD&C colors must always be listed on the food label. For natural colors, the color must also be listed, but the label might read “colored with beta carotene,” “beet juice color” or an equally informative term.

Industry has moved away from using the term “natural.” FDA considers all color additives as “artificial,” even if they come from a natural source. Fortunately, the FDA is providing leeway in not using the term “artificial color,” but there are limits.

Ray A. Matulka, Ph.D., Director of Toxicology, Burdock Group,, 1-407-802-1400

October 2, 2015–Global Food Forums, Inc. — The following is an excerpt from the “2015 Clean Label Magazine.”