Colours and flavours: why going natural brings challenges

By Lynda Searby

- Last updated on GMT

Colouring foods: switching from a synthetic to a natural variant is far from simple
Colouring foods: switching from a synthetic to a natural variant is far from simple

Related tags Natural colours Flavours Flavor

The trend towards natural colours and flavours brings challenges as well as opportunities.

Key points

Early last year, confectionery giant Mars unveiled a five-year plan to remove all artificial colours from its human food portfolio.

It may surprise many that, despite the overwhelming shift towards natural colours triggered by the Southampton study a decade ago – which linked six artificial colourings to hyperactivity in children –synthetic colours are still at large in big western brands.

However, the removal of artificial colours is a significant and far from straightforward undertaking for an international organisation, says Paul Collins, director of international sales and marketing at GNT. And this is why multinational food companies do not take such decisions lightly.

“The rules governing the use of colours vary between countries and regions, meaning it can be very difficult to have one standard when operating internationally, which is why global companies can have different policies in different markets,”​ he explains.

In this respect, he says colouring foods, such as those produced by GNT, have an advantage in that they offer an opportunity for global regulatory compliance, which might not exist if using natural colours.

With both colourings and flavourings, switching from a synthetic to a natural variant is far from simple. In addition to regulatory concerns, there are questions around whether the natural replacement functions and performs up to the same standard in the food application, whether it will work in the factory processing environment, and what consequences it may have for shelf-life and packaging.

Switching to natural colours isn’t simple (return to top)

“When you replace artificial colours with natural colours or colouring foods, it is important to have a deep understanding of performance, since it is not a simple switch,”​ says Collins.

“There is a lot of work to be done on process implementation. A multinational will have to look at execution in each of its factories and carry out stability tests, stress tests, organoleptic assessments and so on.

Companies cannot afford to risk brand loyalty, which takes a long time to earn but can be lost in a heartbeat.”

Take the example of Kraft, which experienced a backlash in 2015 when US consumers discovered the company had removed the artificial colours Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 from its macaroni cheese product in the UK, but not in the US.

Of course, this PR blunder partly arose from geographical market differences – Europe, and in particular the UK, leads the world on the adoption of natural colours.

“In Europe, artificial colours have been more or less phased out, a shift triggered by the requirement for products containing certain colours to carry a warning label,”​ says Collins.

“In Asia, artificial colours are widely used but there is a discernible trend towards natural, and in America, while artificial colours are still used, many companies have announced an intention to reformulate with natural ‘fruit and vegetable juice colours’. The direction of travel is clear.”

Even in Europe, synthetic colours still linger in a few applications where there is no easy natural alternative.

Natural colouring foods dominate (return to top)

But for colouring foods, thanks to research and development (R&D), those gaps are now few and far between, according to Collins.

“In recent years, we’ve worked on making oil-dispersible colouring foods for fat-based products such as ice cream coatings. We’ve also developed micronised powder versions of colour foods for dry mixes such as dessert powders and instant drinks,”​ he says.

GNT has also been busy developing a natural vegetarian-friendly alternative to carmine from a combination of black carrot, radish and purple sweet potato.

“Meat substitutes are a growing area, and obviously vegans and vegetarians don’t want products that contain an insect-derived colour,”​ explains Collins.

He admits there are still a few applications that remain a challenge, for example, strawberry-flavoured ultra-high temperature milks.

“The neutral pH and the stress of the process create barriers for the easy use of natural colouring foods,”​ he says.

Natural colours and flavours specialist Kalsec agrees that the beverage industry has some demands on colours that have yet to be met by natural alternatives.

“One key issue is the replacement of synthetic colours in bright drinks with total clarity. An emulsion of a natural oil soluble colour cannot give the same clarity as a dissolved synthetic colour, leading to a slight haze that detracts from the traditional appearance of some drinks,”​ says Vince Martin, who is responsible for business development at Kalsec Europe.

Distilled alcoholic drinks have a need for an extended open shelf-life, which natural colours are unable to deliver due to their sensitivity to light and oxygen, he adds.

The clear-label trend (return to top)

Active in both flavourings and colourings, Kalsec is well-placed to comment on the trends in both markets, and Martin is unequivocal that the drive for clear-labels is a common denominator.

“This means that manufacturers of colours and flavours need to focus on using natural ingredients at all levels. The use of carriers, solvents and emulsifiers is under scrutiny,”​ he says.

In response, Kalsec’s Simply Aquaresin range has been developed to use natural materials to disperse flavour oils in aqueous systems.

But in this quest for natural, the waters are muddied by the absence of a precise definition of the term.

“The common understanding of the term is undefined, but clearly demands simple processes and recognisable ingredients,”​ Martin says.

Although there is no consensus on the definition of natural, consumers seem to be unanimous that colouring foodstuffs fit the bill.

“The rise of colouring foodstuffs has shown that consumer preference is for materials that are uncomplicated and easy to understand,”​ Martin explains.

Kalsec’s newly launched Naturebrite paprika oils and expeller-pressed speciality pepper ranges meet this trend. The natural oils are physically-expressed from culinary materials, retaining the characteristic colours and flavours of the foodstuff.

Nature is king in flavours as well (return to top)

The food and beverage industry’s conversion to natural flavours has largely mirrored the shift to natural colours, with natural rather than synthetic the norm in Europe.

Over the past decade, UK natural flavouring systems company Create Flavours says it has invested 90% of its R&D budget in developing natural flavours, and that very few projects from UK-based customers call for synthetics.

“The drive today is for even more authenticity and naturalness, so we’re doing a lot of work on natural ‘named’ clean-label flavours,”​ says Create Flavours md Jonathan Jones.

Within beverages, natural flavours are already mainstream in most countries on the continent, according to German flavours giant Symrise.

“Synthetic flavours are still present in some countries, but consumer awareness in terms of naturalness, health and high quality products is increasing. It is just a matter of time until the whole beverage market pursues the natural way,”​ says Ferdinand Rotter, beverages category director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, at Symrise.

“Even countries in the Middle East have started looking for more natural solutions, so we are putting a lot of effort into developing authentic flavours for markets with special requirements, such as halal and kosher,”​ he explains.

But while the move towards natural flavours is an overarching trend, there are a number of other drivers behind product development in flavourings.

Trends challenging the flavourings market (return to top)

Projects in the dynamic ‘health and wellness’ and ‘better for you’ spaces are throwing some demands at the flavourings industry.

“In the health and wellness arena, fortified foods and beverages that are high in nutritional ingredients – such as protein or branched chain amino acids – are becoming more mainstream, and the demand for exciting flavours to make them palatable is driving innovation,”​ says Dr Ian Butler, innovation director at Synergy Flavours.

In sports nutrition, for example, Synergy says the bitterness of some ingredients can be masked with creative flavour science without adding sweeteners and acids.

“Our research scientists and flavourists work together to develop solutions that work with the body’s bitter responsive receptors to offset or balance bitterness perception,”​ explains Butler.

Create Flavours has also received requests from customers to develop flavours for challenging protein products where “particularly impactful flavourings” ​have been necessary. The company says it has successfully overcome these issues by building masking flavouring components into its natural flavour ranges.

The development of better-for-you products also presents a challenge to flavourists.

“Manufacturers are looking for flavour solutions that can enhance or maintain taste in low sugar, fat, salt or calorie products, where building back texture as well as taste can be a challenge,”​ says Butler.

Synergy has devised dairy flavourings that are says to enable reduction of fat without compromising on taste in applications such as cheese sauce.

Using a concentrated cheese flavour (declarable on-pack as ‘cheese’) to build back taste, these ‘solutions’ can support a saturated fat reduction of up to 70% without sacrificing flavour or texture, says the company.

They are also applicable to bakery products for building back the creamy mouthfeel that is lost when fat is removed.

Sugar-reduction focus (return to top)

For manufacturers looking to reduce sugar, Synergy offers a range of ‘sugar boosters’ that are designed to reduce the sugar content of baked goods by up to 30%, with options also available for dairy applications.

Assisting with customers’ sugar reduction efforts is also a major focus for Create Flavours. Its approach is to design flavours that give the impression of sweetness along with the taste effect, such as jammy strawberry, sticky fig and brown sugar.

“These can be incorporated into our sweetness enhancer range and greatly improve sweetness profiles in low sugar and zero sugar products. One of the great advantages is that they are labelled simply as ’natural flavourings’,”​ says Jones.

Stevia is playing a lead role in the food and beverage industry’s sugar reduction efforts, and the flavour industry also has a supporting part to play in masking the sweetener’s bitter off-notes.

Create Flavours says it has been working on a range of masking flavours along with flavours with built-in masking technology, which have proved “a great success”​ across all sectors.

Kalsec has come at the stevia challenge from another angle, with natural herb and spice extracts that can be used in stevia-sweetened formulations.

“Spice and herb extracts can deliver new and novel taste and mouthfeel characteristics to a beverage that does not demand high sweetness,”​ says Martin.

Trends to look out for (return to top)

As you might expect, given the clean-label and ‘naturalness’ trends, Symrise says that future flavour directions are pointing to botanicals, vegetables, herbs and spices, with the story behind the ingredient becoming increasingly important.

The German flavours firm has also observed a trend towards ‘adult’ flavour profiles – adding complexity to beverages through bitter, tart, smoked and herbal flavours.

Synergy predicts that florals, in particular elderflower, hibiscus and rose, are going to be a key flavour trend in Europe over the next 12 months. It is a view shared by Create Flavours’ Jones, who says florals can “play a part in driving the image of healthiness by adding light, fresh fragrance notes to products”​.

Tea flavours are becoming popular across Europe, especially when used in combination with fruit flavours – and on the savoury side, smoke continues to be popular, he adds.

“We’ve been working on a second-generation range of natural flavourings that gives authentic smoke notes,”​ Jones says.

The view from Synergy is all things purple – broccoli, carrots and blueberries – are in demand too, driven by the perceived health benefits. “We expect to see demand for the corresponding flavours increase across different categories,”​ says Butler.

The ‘purple foods’ trend relates to both flavours and colouring foods, and GNT’s Collins attributes the popularity of the colour to its association with flavonoid-rich fruit and vegetables.

“Colour is taking on more importance as a sensory attribute,”​ he says. “Historically, emphasis has been placed on flavour while colour has been underplayed. Now, we are seeing products being brought to market that use colour as a descriptor, and these are bringing colour to the fore in the mind of the consumer.”

Related news

Show more

Follow us

Featured Jobs

View more


Food Manufacture Podcast

Listen to the Food Manufacture podcast