We eat with our eyes first, which is why the color of food is so important. What’s also becoming increasingly important is the source of that color.

“This is a great time for bakers to be innovative, especially with the growing millennial generation that desires more novelty-seeking products,” said Karen Brimmer, technical manager for baking and processed foods, Sensient Colors LLC, St. Louis, MO. “Color is typically a brand-defining ingredient, providing the first impression of a product for the consumer. It is, therefore, critical to brand success that visual appeal is maximized and the right colors are used.”

Colors are additives

In the US, any ingredient added to a food or beverage for the sole purpose of providing color is legally defined as a color additive, with all color additives requiring approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be food additives. Colors are either approved as a certified color additive for use in foods, drugs and cosmetics and have an FD&C number or as a color additive exempt from certification.

The industry characterizes the former group as artificial with the latter group, by default, considered natural; however, FDA does not consider any color added to a food to be natural unless the color is natural to the ingredient itself. For example, strawberry pie filling made to be extra red through the inclusion of strawberry juice concentrate can be labeled “all-natural strawberry pie filling.” Such a description is not possible if beet juice, an FDA-recognized exempt-from-certification color additive, is used for a color boost. What would then be appropriate to say is, “does not contain any artificial colors.”

Because the US food industry’s use of artificial colors, the seven certified dyes and lakes manufactured from petroleum and other chemicals continue to make headlines in the media with no signs of abating. As a result, a growing number of bakers are joining the ranks of other food manufacturers in their efforts to remove such colors. A great deal of the media commotion is coming from grassroots consumer advocacy groups who like to point out that European versions of many beloved American food brands use so-called natural colors while those same products sold in the US rely on FD&C colors.

Colors exempt from certification, the so-called natural colors, come from a variety of sources including plants, minerals and insects and via traditional food preparation processes such as fermentation and caramelization. It is this broad characterization that has some consumer activists questioning the naturalness of these colors, further causing mayhem in the world of food formulating. For example, the bright red colorant carmine is sourced from insects, and titanium dioxide, a white color additive, is crystallized from mineral ore. Such sourcing does not resonate well with many healthy foods enthusiasts.

The same is true of caramel color. Of its four classes, some contain a potentially carcinogenic chemical called 4-methylimidazole (4-Mel). The classes are defined by their means of manufacture and their individual physical properties. Many baked goods benefit from some brown color, and caramel color has historically been the go-to for natural brown.

While the US categorizes colors as certified or ­exempt-from-certification, some countries further differentiate natural colors as either color substances from natural sources and color substances produced by synthesis. The latter are the same as those found in nature. Such colors can be produced by chemical synthesis and be identical to substances found in nature, or they can be derived from natural sources and subsequently modified to yield substances identical to those found in nature. They are often referred to as “nature identical” colors. (This definition doesn’t exist legally in the US.)

Basic baking colors

Historically, the most common natural colors used in baked goods have been annatto (sourced from seeds), turmeric (sourced from roots), caramel (sourced from sugars), paprika (sourced from red pepper pods) and beta-carotene (sourced from a number of plants and also available as natural identical), according to Renee Lietha-Santy, scientist at Chr. Hansen, Inc., Milwaukee. “For additional hues, red beet and carmine are also used,” she said. “We are able to offer specialized blends in order to achieve any desired shade from bright yellows to orange cheese shades and golden and dark brown shades.

“The primary pigments that demonstrate very good stability in baked grain-based applications are annatto and paprika for orange shades, turmeric or beta-carotene for yellow shades, caramel for brown shades and carmine for red shades,” Ms. Lietha-Santy added. “As a non-carmine alternative, red beet can be used to provide pink or red shades in applications that have a short bake time and low-moisture content, such as crackers or cookies.”

Bakers have long used such colors to enhance product appearance. “For example, turmeric extract gives cornbread a desirable golden yellow shade while annatto extract delivers orange color to cheese crackers,” Ms. Lietha-Santy noted. “Sometimes colors can be used to reduce the usage levels of more expensive ingredients, such as cheese powders or other flavorings.”

Suppliers offer microencapsulated liquid and powder versions of many of these colors to aid stability. “What makes these products unique is that because they are encapsulated, they are able to provide superior brightness and improved stability in baked products,” Ms. Lietha-Santy said. “In addition, they can be used at lower dosages than their standard counterparts due to the intensity of the colors.”

Harvesting color

In addition to the historical natural colors just described, some bakers are taking one step closer to being natural by using colors made from recognizable fruits and vegetables.

“We can deliver edible fruit- and vegetable-based colors for bakery applications in shades of orange, yellow, purple, pink and brown,” said Alice Lee, color culinologist at GNT USA Inc., Tarrytown, NY. “All of our products are made from fresh fruits and vegetables and are processed physically with water. We never use solvents or chemical extractions, and as such, our colors are foods themselves and edible at any point in the production process.”

Besides increasing visual appeal, select exempt-from-certification color ingredients add value in terms of ingredient source. “Rather than hiding a product’s quality by using color, natural colors can be used to highlight the increased value or appeal of a product,” Ms. Lee explained. Marketers can flag on product label language such as “colored with carrots.”

“We are seeing true innovation in bakery applications,” said Kelly Newsome, corporate communications at GNT USA. “The approach of simply swapping out artificial for natural is becoming obsolete. Product developers are using natural color ingredients to add value in products far beyond color.” For example, the company has baked artisan sourdough bread with a black carrot swirl. “Here, fruit and vegetable colors offer visual appeal but, more importantly, added value via recognizable, healthy ingredient incorporation: the black carrot.”

Regarding formulation and baking with colors made from fruits and vegetables, Ms. Lee noted it is essential to start with a neutral base. “This will ensure the greatest color potential is reached,” she said. When color liquids are added to dough or batter, bakers can avoid overbrowning by using lower heat for a longer bake time rather than high heat for a short bake time. Powder-style colors can be applied after baking, for example, in a seasoning mix to coat crackers.

The blues and the browns

Historically, one of the most common challenges with natural colors was achieving a natural blue shade. “Although blue is not the highest volume color on its own, it is a critical color to complete the full natural color spectrum,” Ms. Brimmer said. “We now offer bright and stable natural blues that fill a significant gap in the natural color spectrum and can be used across all categories.”

Another blue option is spirulina, recently approved by FDA for expanded use as a color in applications such as dessert coatings, toppings and frostings. It can be combined with other fruits and vegetables to deliver unique natural shades of blue, green and purple.

Spirulina is considered an edible plant. It is one of many forms of blue-green algae that gets its characteristic blue-green color from its chlorophyll and phycocyanin content. When used as a food color in approved applications, it should be cited as “spirulina extract” in the ingredient statement.

Bakers also have a new color platform that provides rich brown alternatives to caramel that also eliminate 4-MeI. “Natural brown extracted from natural vegetable juice sources delivers a clean label including 4-MeI-free cocoa and caramel color replacements,” said Mike Geraghty, president, color group, Sensient Technologies Corp. “Our natural brown replicates the bold shades of certified colors and offers appealing colors ranging from buttery yellow brown to deep auburn.”

Simply colorful ingredients

Bakers can also turn to colorful ingredients that provide other functions in addition to contributing color and, therefore, are not regulated as color additives. For example, Suntava Inc., Afton, MN, harvests purple corn to make purple corn flour, whole grain purple corn meal and whole-grain purple corn grits.

“Our purple corn is more than just a pretty color. In addition to all the goodness found in whole grains, each of our ingredients is naturally packed with health-enhancing anthocyanins,” said Terry Howell, vice-president, business development, Suntava. “These are powerful antioxidants that are responsible for the corn’s deep purple color.” These ingredients are a source of natural color and have application in artisan breads, crackers, salted snacks, pizza crust and desserts.

Recently, Briess Malt & Ingredients Co., Chilton, WI, relaunched its line of cost-effective cocoa powder extenders that not only stretch a manufacturer’s cocoa inventory but can also act as a colorant in baked goods. “These are 100% pure malted barley flours that have been deeply roasted at varying degrees to create a range of colors and flavors,” said Judie Giebel, technical services representative. “They can be used alone or custom blended to a baker’s specification.

“All of our color-adjusting ingredients are natural, malted grain ingredients,” she added. “Roasting the grains after the initial malting process develops malts that run the gamut of colors from golden to amber to almost black colors. Roasting also develops flavor that enhances baked goods.” For example, in bread applications, caramel malted barley flour provides the golden hue desirable in whole wheat breads. This not only adjusts color naturally but contributes to a whole grain claim.

Careful considerations

Bakers have a number of considerations when working with natural colors because of the challenges in a system exposed to heat, that changes pH and has a potentially lengthy shelf life.

“Chemical leavening agents may cause a localized change in pH within the product when they react during baking. This can cause uneven coloration if using a color that is pH-sensitive,” Ms. Lietha-Santy said. “High fat content can have an effect on the stability of certain emulsified or encapsulated colors during the baking process. Of course, cost-in-use is always a top concern as well, and the need for stable natural colors is a high priority.”

These challenges should not be a deterrent as consumer trends shift toward simpler and cleaner ingredient labels with fewer ingredients of the sort consumers can recognize. “Natural colors fit right into this demand, and use will continue to increase in the future,” Ms. Lietha-Santy said. “Color companies will continue to work on providing a greater range of shades, as well as strive for greater stability, brightness and lower costs.”

Ms. Newsome added, “As demand for natural and recognizable color ingredients increases, so does the quality of the color ingredients available.” In fact, many of the cost and stability issues from just a mere decade ago have been overcome with new sourcing and formulation options.