By Donna Berry, contributing editor
The appearance of a food or beverage influences craveability and acceptance, before the product ever touches the lips. Whether it’s an herb-encrusted chicken breast, a topically seasoned low-fat snack cracker or crystal-clear, vitamin-enhanced water, formulators rely on ingredients that provide visual cues to a product’s sensory experience in order to encourage purchase.
This is because we eat with our eyes before we ever smell or taste, according to Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., chief scientific officer, Corvus Blue, Chicago.
…”Visual appeal is why chefs put so much time and effort into plate presentation” says Jennifer Brown, global application scientist, D.D. Williamson, Louisville, KY. “Colour and appearance serve to entice the consumer. Flavor and texture bring them back for more. This is especially true when a consumer has an expectation from a previous experience. In this way, colour helps to guide the consumer on the path for repeated experiences with a particular product.”…
Younger adults might be less bothered by foods that appear au naturel, as this generation tends to prefer products that are minimally processed. But older adults who have spent a lifetime with beef gravy being a deep brown, might not accept a product void of the hue caramel colour can provide. And then there are expectations. Consumers want their cola to be brown while fruit punch should be red. On the East Coast, cheddar cheese is white. Midwesterners expect it to be orange. A food’s colour suggests its flavor, and thus its acceptance, even before reaching the mouth, which is why colourants are critical components of many food formulations.
Food and beverage manufacturers have long utilized food colouring for visual appeal. “Adding colouring gives the consumer an expectation for taste,” according to Brown.
“Further, colour lies in the balance between nutrition and indulgence,” Brown says. “Reducing sugar and fat may impact the colour of food or beverage product. Using a colour additive can make it look as though nothing was lost.” To further understand why today’s food formulating industry uses colour additives, D.D. Williamson conducted a poll at the Institute of Food Technologists’ Annual Meeting & Food Expo in June 2012. Almost 100 food-industry technologists answered this question: What is the most common reason your company uses natural colouring in applications?
The data demonstrates a three-way tie for first place among six possible responses, with 20.6% of respondents choosing “to offset colours that may be lost in storage and distribution,” “to reduce variations in colour from sourcing or processing” or “to enhance naturally occurring colours.” A separate 19.6% of respondents chose “to provide a product’s flavor identity,” while 13.4% chose “to colour products that are colourless.” In last place, “to protect sensitive flavors or vitamins” was selected by 5.2% of respondents.
A palette for the palate
As the term “colour” suggests, colours are added to foods for the sole purpose of colouring the product, They are recognized by FDA as “colour additives,” a term legally defined in Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 70. All colour additives must be approved for use by FDA as a food additive.
FDA classifies colour additives as either “certified” or “exempt from certification.” The former is also referred to as artificial or synthetic; and the latter, by default, is often characterized as “natural.” However, in the United States, federal regulations prevent any colour additive from legally being called natural. FDA also does not consider any colour added to a food product to be natural. The exception is if the colour is natural to the product itself, such as colouring a strawberry yogurt with strawberry juice. If it’s coloured with beet juice, a colour exempt form certification, the product cannot be labeled “all-natural strawberry yogurt,” It would be acceptable to say that it does not contain any synthetic colours.
“Generally speaking, artificial colourings are manufactured from petroleum-based raw materials, while colours exempt from certification come from a range of natural sources, including plants, minerals and animals, and in some cases, are produced through natural fermentation.” says Brown. Both types of colours can effectively improve the appearance of foods. …
…In particular, there’s a growing trend toward packaging prepared foods in clear containers, as consumers like to see what they are buying. But, sometimes, this view can be deleterious to the product’s appearance, as light accelerates colouring oxidation.
This is especially relevant for beverages, explains Brown. “Colours used in beverages packaged in clear glass or plastic must be stable to light,” she says. “Also the hue of some colourings varies according to pH. For example, anthocyanins are generally red in acid and shift towards purple as pH increases. This, too, is important in beverages.”
There’s also the issue of the clarity of colours in beverages, as many naturally derived colours are oil-soluble and have historically exerted a clouding effect when delivered into a beverage via an emulsion. “Natural-colouring manufacturers continue to focus on improving emulsification techniques, which enhances the solubility, and thus clarity, of oil-soluble colourings in beverages,” says Brown.