Flavored milk color
Consumers demand products with colors that give them an authentic appearance.

Adding authenticity to the equation

Seeing is tasting when it comes to food. Hence, authentic, true-to-nature color is a priority for many dairy processors. Artificial colors, those based on petroleum and in the United States, known as certified colors, historically have been very cost effective and stable in most dairy systems; however, they may be too colorful in some applications, suggesting to consumers that the application is overly processed. This is particularly true for inherently simple dairy foods such as flavored milk and yogurt.

Last year, Lycored set out to explore the strength of consumer demand for natural colors within the specific context of the dairy industry, and with particular focus on strawberry-flavored milk. The study asked mothers in the United States to evaluate the visual appearance of flavored milks colored red naturally versus artificially.

The company tested the stability of two of its natural tomato-based colors versus the artificial colorant Red No. 3 during and after ultra-high temperature (U.H.T.) processing in a flavored milk drink matrix. Accelerated shelf life tests were carried out to evaluate the stability of the colors when exposed to light, dark and ambient conditions, simulating real-life storage, transportation and retail environments.

When consumers were asked to rate the naturalness of the appearance of the three samples, both of the tomato-based colored milks outscored the artificial sample. Then they were asked if they would be willing to pay more for a product with natural flavorings and colors. Eighty-eight per cent said they would.

Strawberry milk
More natural-looking colors flavored milks are more appealing to consumers than artificially colored varieties.

They were told that the average flavored milk beverage costs $1.50 and asked how much they would be willing to spend on a product if it was made with natural colors and flavors. On average, moms said they would pay up to $2.20, which is 47% more.

In focus groups, mothers were asked about the three colored strawberry milks. Comments on the milks with tomato-based color included: “Looks the most natural to a blended strawberry, therefore potentially most healthy for my children,” “Reminds me of a drink from my childhood…and more likely to appear in nature” and “more attractive to the mom in me. I believe it looks like it has less artificial ingredients in it.”

The focus groups suggested there is a “feel-good factor” from buying their children a product that looks more homemade. Other feedback indicated that consumers are turning away from non-natural colors that are too vibrant.

“We also subjected our natural reds from lycopene to four different U.H.T. process technologies: steam injection, plate, tubular and infusion, including homogenization both upstream and downstream,” Ms. Lippert said. “In many of these processes the recipe is heated at very high temperatures, for example in our direct steam injection trial, which is considered the most harsh of all U.H.T. processing types, the product was heated above 145 degrees C (293 F) and held in direct steam for more than five seconds. The samples with our tomato lycopene retained their color exceptionally well, in fact, much better than those colored with the artificial colorant.”

Child drinking strawberry milk
The focus groups suggested there is a “feel-good factor” from buying their children a product that looks more homemade.

Another natural option for strawberry milk and similar products is Sensient’s heat-stable vegetable juice. It delivers vivid red shades at a neutral pH and stands up to heat at low usage rates, according to the company. Though natural red is challenging to maintain in heat, blues and greens are the most challenging in U.H.T. dairy applications due to heat sensitivities and high water activity.

“Spirulina, a common blue source, is sensitive to heat, and the color will not survive,” Ms. Longhi said. “You need a stable blue foundation to achieve green, so without it, your color portfolio is limited.”

Sensient recently introduced a pH and heat-stable blue that fills a significant shade gap in the natural color spectrum. It is stable across a wide pH range, from 3.0 to 7.0, and can be used to create greens and intense purples, too.

The colors are promising for yogurt, which Ms. Longhi believes is a category with a lot of opportunity to get creative with color.

Colorful yogurt
Yogurt is a category with opportunities for color creativity.

“Social media provides us the ability to share anything, especially photos of foods that are visually interesting,” she said. “This includes bold colors, surprising color combinations and even different color effects, such as shimmer. Limited-time colorful offerings in the yogurt category are a great way to delight consumers and provide them an ‘Instagrammable’ opportunity.”

While this is one approach to using colors in yogurt, another is to add authenticity. For example, Lycored just concluded studies using its natural tomato-based and beta-carotene colors in fruit preparations in yogurts. Results showed that the range of shades available is true to the fruit in terms of authenticity, which is key for consumer likeability.

“The ingredients also remained color-fast in accelerated shelf life tests, even under light conditions more extreme than typical retail lighting conditions,” Ms. Lippert said. “By contrast, there were problems with the samples colored with different natural colorants. For example, migration is a real issue for carmine-based coloring in strawberry yogurt, which impacts the quality and freshness perception of a layered yogurt on shelf.”

The study included evaluation under industrial-scale conditions. Results showed the colorants were process stable, even when subjected to high heat levels for more than 30 minutes.