Natural flavors and colors can be muted compared with their artificial counterparts. The right sources and blends, however, can help bridge the gap.

Natural, clean label, no artificial ingredients — consumers seem to fall head over heels for such buzzwords and phrases these days. This trend is amorphous, with “natural” yet officially undefined by the Food and Drug Administration and “clean label” loosely referring to any ingredient average shoppers would recognize. But still it persists, rooted in a perception of health.

“Consumers are more informed about what they eat and want to make healthier choices,” said Devon Edmonson, marketing and advertising coordinator, Mother Murphy’s Laboratories. “There is great emphasis on clean label as consumers demand transparency and want simpler products without artificial ingredients.”

This demand for transparency has most certainly engulfed flavors and colors, maybe some of the first ingredients to be swept up in demand for “natural.” However, moving from artificial to natural flavors and colors comes with some caveats, including less powerful taste and color profiles, issues with sourcing, and processing challenges.

“Natural flavoring ingredients are sourced from all types of raw materials ranging from fruits, vegetables, spices and more,” said Megan Trent, marketing assistant, Gold Coast Ingredients. “On the other hand, natural colors are sourced from more selective ingredients because food coloring needs to be stable, consistent and rich in color to complement various applications.”

With the right flavor and color blend, however, and a supplier with good market connections, bakers and snack producers can deliver impactful flavors and colors stable enough to endure processing and still have an ingredient list consumers can recognize and pronounce.

Promise and delivery

It may seem obvious, but when it comes to flavors and colors, the most important aspects of these ingredients are the profile they promise. Unfortunately for natural flavors and colors, the actual profiles delivered in the ­final product can be a bit wanting.

“Natural colors do not provide the same intensity and vibrancy of artificial colors, and they do not maintain their color over shelf life as well as their artificial counterparts,” said Elsa Howerth, senior flavorist and R&D director, Kerry. This issue can be due to a lack of stability in the ingredients as they go through formulating and processing of the final product. “Colors such as green and blue are more challenging to create as a natural color and more affected by pH changes in the products in which they are used,” she continued.

Natural flavors also pack less of a punch to the taste buds than artificial ones; however, this is less of an issue with snack foods, as Donnie Moran, national sales manager, flavors, Prinova USA, has found. “Wholesome snacks are less taste-sensitive than sweeter, more decadent products,” he said. “In wholesome snacks like light-salt potato chips with light salt or vegetable shoestrings, consumers expect the taste to be subdued, allowing more use of natural flavors, which tend to be more mellow.”

Baked goods have a more uphill battle with natural flavors. “In decadent or sweet categories like candies and cookies, natural flavors present bigger challenges because they can become more difficult to use and maintain the same taste profile,” Mr. Moran continued. “Wholesome snacks are a perfect fit for natural flavors, while the strong taste required in decadent snacks can demand a more vigorous natural approach.”

Prinova addresses this challenge with flavor application work. The company uses dry and liquid natural flavors in conjunction with vegan, non-GMO, allergen-free, organic alternatives and a line of PureCircle stevia leaf extracts to create flavor profiles that can replace artificial or blends of natural and artificial flavors.

While natural flavors may not be as potent as their artificial counterparts, natural colors can also present a challenge: They can sometimes have an impact on taste, bestowing off flavors. For example, Katie Rountree, CFS, associate application scientist, DDW, pointed out that current natural options for blue and green bakery products can deliver muted hues and also may contribute off flavors in the final product picked up from their vegetal sources.

Natural color blends need to be balanced to provide the right hue while also maintaining the expected taste. To achieve this balance, Land O’ Lakes’ R&D team works closely with suppliers to develop proprietary blends of natural color compounds. These blends aim to provide the color experience bakers and snack producers are looking for while still minimizing possible undesirable flavor impact.

Easy to recognize on an ingredient list, natural flavors and colors appeal to consumers because of their healthy halo.

Finding consistent supply

Going natural with flavors and colors does not come without a cost; natural sources can face supply hurdles. The raw materials these ingredients are derived from are subject to market volatility and even scarcity. These challenges can drive up prices and even sometimes have an impact on the consistency of performance of the flavors and colors.

“Natural flavors do, in many cases, cost more due to raw material availability and expense to produce. However, with rather persistent consumer demand for natural flavors, food and beverage developers are creating new products with this in mind from the beginning,” said Michelle Finley, marketing communications associate, Edlong Dairy Technologies.

Despite higher price tags, consumer demand seems to be making the sacrifice worth it to bakers and snack producers to have a cleaner label. To help maintain their sources, suppliers of natural flavors and colors cultivate strong relationships and keep a sharp eye on markets around the world.

“Our R&D and procurement teams have developed very close relationships with our raw material suppliers to help ease some of the sourcing challenges,” said Roger Lane, marketing manager, savory flavors, Sensient Flavors and Fragrances. “We know exactly who to reach out to in order to source a new ingredient.”

Land O’ Lakes Ingredients not only has developed partnerships with global color suppliers to secure cost-effective color resources, but the company also watches agricultural markets closely. “Our Land O’ Lakes Corporate Strategic Sourcing Team uses sophisticated market analytics and agricultural crop tools to monitor color ingredient supplies worldwide and track market forces,” said John McDonald, R&D fellow and technical director, customer solutions, Land O’ Lakes Ingredients.

With low supply and higher costs, it’s important that flavor and color performance lives up to bakers’ and snack producers’ standards. Because these natural ingredients are often derived from plant sources, quality can vary from season to season. “Consistency of flavor and color delivery can also fluctuate with natural ingredients due to crop variation,” said Gary Augustine, executive director, market development, Kalsec. “With Kalsec extracts, we standardize on key functional attributes to allow consistent delivery of flavor and color without seasonal variation.”

DDW developed its Specialty Dark caramel colors, which the company claims are the darkest Class I caramel on the market. They could be used as a cocoa extender, helping expensive, volatile cocoa ingredients go further in a bakery formulation and making bakers less dependent on cocoa prices.

Some flavors, typically achieved artificially, may also not have a natural alternative, or it may be difficult to source one. “Not all artificial flavors are available as natural, which limits creativity and the ability to meet customer and consumer expectations,” Ms. Howerth said. With the company’s vertically integrated sourcing chain, Kerry aims to jump pricing and market volatility hurdles but also meet challenges in achieving those more difficult natural flavors.

Recognizable sources such as dairy are obvious choices for flavorists and colorists looking for natural ingredients.

Enduring the heat

Once raw material sources have been secured for natural flavors and colors, next comes the hurdle of processing. Food manufacturing isn’t always friendly to these natural ingredients. “Many snacks are extruded or oven-baked in typical food processing techniques that use heat or temperature, and natural flavors can be sensitive to these processing techniques,” Mr. Moran said.

Prinova mitigates the loss of flavor due to heat processing by using protected natural flavors less sensitive to heat. For colors, which can degrade through heat processing, Prinova offers Lycored natural colors to alleviate any processing challenges that may come up. “We work directly with customers to understand their process and the other ingredients used in formulations so that we can recommend the most appropriate natural color,” said Larry Davis, commercial director, food and beverage, Prinova.

Among the most challenging artificial colors to replace is FD&C Red No. 40, according to Ms. Rountree. This common artificial color is used in red velvet-­flavored cakes or snack bars, and its replacement means finding a heat-stable, pH-stable and kosher natural alternative. “Until the ‘holy grail’ of Red 40 solutions is discovered, DDW uses some of our technologies with our custom solutions to create viable options,” she said.

Kalsec developed its Durabrite technology to bring stability to naturally sourced colors. This combination of natural raw materials with a stabilizing system keeps colors from degrading across a range of processing conditions.

Kerry’s Crystals line consists of fruit and vegetable powders that maintain the flavor, color and nutrition of the source material. Not only do these powders offer bakers and snack producers the ability to clean up their ingredient statements, but they also are shelf stable, and their powdered form makes them easy to use while still retaining their flavor and color.

The need for natural flavor and color alternatives does not look to be dissipating any time soon. Bakers and snack producers need ones that can consistently deliver the taste and appearance profiles consumers expect but are stable enough to stand up to their processing techniques. With the latest supply and sources, and just the right blends, bakers can find what they need for achieving a clean label and great taste.