What is the difference between natural colors and coloring foods? Why is one term used rather than the other? Both natural colors and coloring foods are used to give food appealing colors; both come from natural raw materials. Regional regulations vary, creating complex food labeling requirements around the globe. In the United States, the most common non-synthetic food colorant term is “natural colors.” In Europe, natural colors have been labeled as additives requiring E number assignments. This has led to the development of a new process and declaration: coloring foods.

What are Natural Colors?

Natural Colors give vibrant color to food and drink when added to a product and come from a wide range of natural sources such as vegetables, fruits, plants and other edible natural sources. The color pigments are selectively extracted from the original raw material to create a natural color. Read more here.

The key concept of natural colors is that once you have found a raw material that contains the natural pigment providing the expected shades and stability, it is crucial to maximize the extraction and obtain a satisfactory yield for affordable cost-in-use. Subsequently, the food industry has focused on developing the most effective extraction technologies to support such objectives.

Natural colors together with synthetic colors have been assessed from a food safety and purity standpoint. Many regulations rely on precise texts describing the molecular structures, extraction process, source materials, and more. Manufacturers must follow clear procedures described in the regulations to guarantee the safety of the finished goods.

As a processed product, natural colors are considered additives that are regulated like other food additives such as emulsifiers, thickeners or preservatives in Europe.

Evolution of E Numbers in Europe

In Europe, to limit the size of the ingredient declarations on packaged foods, the authorities created codes for food additives. In this context, a food color or a texturizer, for example, does not need to be described only by its name, such as carotene or guar gum; it can instead be described by what is called an E Number, in this example E 160a or E 410. The ingredient’s function also needs to be mentioned before the E Number, for example “Color: E 160a” or “Thickener: Guar Gum” on the label.

Over time and after several media campaigns, European consumers have begun to perceive E Numbers as dangerous chemicals. This can largely be attributed to the fact that they were not able to differentiate E 110, the synthetic colorant “Sunset Yellow,” from E 163, a natural color on a label. E 163 could be replaced on a food label by “Anthocyanins – Grape skin extracts” but it makes the declaration much longer and the function of colors still need to be mentioned.

A key solution to avoid the additive declaration is to use ingredients instead of additives. An ingredient is less processed and is declared by its nature not by its function. For example, when you use salt, it is labeled as salt and not as a taste enhancer or preservative although it provides such functions. When you use vinegar, it is not labeled as an acidifier or a preservative, although it provides such functions.

What are Coloring Foods?

The coloring foods concept comes from Europe. It started in the 1990s as a very niche market in Germany, and developed strongly after 2005 with a major acceleration over a decade ago as a result of the Southampton study. The ruling on Azo dyes labeling in Europe led to a major conversion from synthetic colors to natural solutions.

The purpose of coloring foods is the same as the salt or vinegar reference above. If you use a black carrot juice concentrate in a strawberry yogurt, the objective is to provide a nice bright red shade, though the black carrot juice concentrate will be declared as such and not as an additive. By doing so then you can remove the color additives; for example, E 120 (carmine) that were used before. Using less additives is typically more appealing in the consumer’s eye, as more consumers desire clean and clear labels.

You can read more about that trend here: Consumer Trends: Clean to Clear Labels

Using Coloring Foods

The key challenge when using coloring foods has been finding and producing coloring foods that have the same functionality and similar cost-in-use as natural colors. Since an ingredient in Europe cannot be the result of an intense extraction process, manufacturers suggested industry rules that are complying with EC Regulation 1333/2008. The reference to this regulation aims at explaining why coloring foods not food additives.

A key factor to consider when defining coloring foods is to make sure your extraction is not selective. Selectively extracted colors must be declared as additives, which many manufacturers do not want. This means that the industry has made significant investments in plant breeding to increase pigment content in source materials and in soft extraction technologies that would respect the threshold set by the industry guidelines.

Are Coloring Foods Relevant to the US Market?

Will coloring foods make as big of an impact in the U.S. as they have on labeling food in Europe? The answer is maybe, maybe not.

Specifically looking at food labeling, in the U.S. anything that imparts color to a food must be labeled as a color, so there would not be a differentiation in labeling a natural color and a coloring food. U.S. regulation differentiates between certified colors (mainly synthetic colors whose food safety needs to be certified for each produced batch) and colors free from certification, namely natural colors. Among these we can find coloring foods, though in the U.S. they will still be labeled as a color additive. For example, here is the difference between possible U.S. and E.U. labels for a red beet juice concentrate used in ice cream:

EUROPE LABELING:: Cream, Milk, Sugar, Strawberry Puree, Red Beet Juice Concentrate, Emulsifiers: E471, Thickener: E 407, E 412, Natural Flavor
U.S. LABELING:: Cream, Milk, Sugar, Strawberry Puree, Red Beet Juice For Color, Mono and Diglycerides, Carrageenans, Locust Been Gum, Natural Flavor

Though there may not be a labeling benefit when using coloring foods, there might be functional and marketing benefits. Functional benefits could include the form or structure of the coloring foods, and it may provide some technical features that are needed in some formulations. Marketing benefits could include supporting the story of natural products for brands.

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