No more Yellow 5: How manufacturers are making the natural colors switch

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While it's tough to predict exactly what consumers want, there are some ingredients they could do without — including Yellow 5, Red 40 and Blue 2.

As the "clean label" trend is gaining momentum, more and more manufacturers are replacing chemical-based artificial colors with alternatives made by nature. Companies that aren't making the switch tend to be losing market share and seeing revenue fall as consumers turn toward brands known for less processed, simpler, more authentic food. 

There isn't a lot of evidence showing that artificial colors are harmful, but nutritionists have long championed foods without these ingredients. Consumers have interpreted that to mean that artificial colors are bad for them.

In fact, a 2014 study by Nielsen revealed that more than 60 percent of U.S. consumers cited a lack of artificial colors and flavors as an important factor when making food purchases at the store.

That’s why one of the biggest trends on the manufacturing side in the past year has been centered around the removal of artificial colors in foods.

Carol T. Culhane, president of International Food Focus Ltd., said some parents are concerned about the impact of artificial colors on their children’s health and are increasingly choosing foods colored with only natural colors. Manufacturers are accordingly working to replace artificial colors with natural colors as a precautionary measure.

“After a 2007 study in the U.K. showed that artificial colors and/or the common preservative sodium benzoate increased hyperactivity in children, the European Union started requiring food labels indicating that a product contains any one of six dyes that had been investigated,” she told Food Dive. “The FDA convened a Food Advisory Committee meeting in 2011 to review the existing research, and concluded that there was not sufficient evidence proving that foods with artificial colors caused hyperactivity in the general population. The FDA also decided that further research was needed, and that a label disclosing a possible link between dyes and hyperactivity was unnecessary.”

Still, it hasn’t stopped manufacturers from making changes and analysts predict that a boom is on its way in the industry.

No chemical candy

Nestle is in the midst of changing 75 recipes to get rid of artificial colors, Patricia Bowles, head of communications for Nestle Confections & Snacks, told Food Dive. In some cases, artificial flavors and colors were removed altogether without affecting appearance and taste. In other cases, natural ingredients replaced their lab-made counterparts.

The crispy center part of a Butterfinger, which used to get its golden hue from Yellow 5 and Red 40, is now colored with annatto. This is a natural coloring that comes from seeds of the fruit from the archiote tree, which grows in tropical and subtropical climates. The Nestle Crunch bar will see a switch from artificial vanillin to a natural vanilla flavor.

“As part of the world’s leading nutrition, health and wellness company, the commitment by Nestlé USA to remove artificial flavors and colors in chocolate brands is an important milestone in its ongoing journey to provide the most enjoyable and nutritionally responsible offerings within the candy category,” Bowles told Food Dive in an email.

Butterfinger bars

In doing so, the company is the first major U.S. candy manufacturer to commit to removing artificial flavors and colors from all of its chocolate candy products.

“Nestlé USA is aware that candy consumers are interested in broader food trends, including fewer artificial ingredients,” Bowles said. “As Nestlé USA thought about what this meant for its candy brands, the first step was to remove artificial flavors and colors from chocolate candy products without affecting taste or increasing the price so that consumers could continue to enjoy the brands they know and love.”

The company’s R&D team and U.S. manufacturing facilities have been teaming on this project for several years to ensure the new recipes do not alter the taste, texture or appearance of the chocolate candy products. Thanks to their efforts, Nestlé USA has committed that all newly launched products introduced in the U.S. will contain no artificial flavors and colors. 

“We recently launched two sugar candy products – SweeTARTS Ropes and Randoms – with no artificial flavors and colors,” Bowles said. “We are actively working on transitioning our current sugar products to no artificial flavors. The ingredients used to replace artificial colors in the chocolate products are derived from natural sources such as fruits, vegetables and plants.”

Secret agent orange

Last year, Kraft Heinz "secretly" removed artificial flavors, preservatives and dyes from its iconic Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and saw no change in sales. The company pledged to make the move in April 2015, but said nothing more. The reformulated product — which used annatto, paprika and turmeric to make the iconic bright orange pasta — slipped into the marketplace in December 2015, and consumers barely noticed. Analysts say that if Kraft Heinz had announced its new formulation, there could have been a "New Coke"-sized backlash. Because the company made the general consumer its test kitchen, the change went well.

“As we considered changing the ingredients of our classic Blue Box, we did so knowing we had to maintain our iconic look, taste and texture,” Greg Guidotti, vice president of meals at Kraft Heinz, said in a release a few months after the transition. “We’d invite Americans to try our new recipe, but they most likely already have.”

A spokesperson for Kraft Heinz told Food Dive the change involved replacing artificial dyes Yellow 5 and Yellow 6. There are also no artificial flavors or preservatives in the new recipe—something now prominently displayed on its revamped packaging.

Tricky Trix

In 2016, General Mills made good on its promise to consumers to remove all artificial colors and flavors from its cereals, although it experienced some challenges.


Most obvious was in its Trix cereal. Food scientists were unable to match the same blue and green, as no suitable natural color could be replicated. Today, Trix is made with fruit and vegetable juices and natural vanilla flavoring. 

“We’ve continued to listen to consumers who want to see more recognizable and familiar ingredients on the labels and challenged ourselves to remove barriers that prevent adults and children from enjoying our cereals,” Jim Murphy, president of General Mills’ cereal division, said in a company statement.

Early indicators are that the move is paying off. The company saw a 6% retail sales increase in its first few months after making the change, and expect 2017 to be an even better year.

Soup’s on, artificial colors out

As part of its “real food” initiative," Campbell has committed to remove artificial colors and flavors from its North American products by the end of 2018.

During a recent investor call, company CEO Denise Morrison said that Campbell is making the change as part of an effort to be more open with consumers, bringing greater transparency to what goes in the food they make.

In December, the company launched its new Well Yes! soup line, which contain no artificial colors or flavors. More products will be made available as the year goes on.

No artificial colors to begin with

Some manufacturers are simply coming out with new products in relation to the trend.

Kraft Heinz's Jell-O brand has recently introduced Jell-O Simply Good, pudding mixes made with real ingredients such as banana, cocoa and vanilla bean and the gelatin mixes are flavored with real fruit juices, as opposed to artificial colors and flavors.

“Jell-O Simply Good was inspired by real kids who surprised us with their honest, unprompted feedback about artificial ingredients,” Nicole Kulwicki, Jell-O’s head of marketing, said. “Our goal with the new line is to provide a choice for parents and kids who are looking for products with simpler ingredients. What we’re most excited about, is that we’re still delivering the delicious and fun, colorful flavors that have made Jell-O a part of families’ memories for generations.”


Otis Spunkmeyer, a 40-year old national dessert snack brand, introduced a new line of snack foods into retail last year, all made without artificial flavors or colors, high fructose corn syrup, or partially hydrogenated oils.

Their reason for rolling out a snack line with “no funky stuff” was simple, according to Charice Grace, brand manager for the company. Shoppers are seeking simpler recipes using real ingredients that deliver a superior homemade taste.

“Despite consumer demand for healthier foods and clean eating, many of them still love an indulgence and aren’t willing to sacrifice flavor,” Grace said. “The good news is our foods taste rich, sweet and homemade, but are a better option than other packaged cookies and cakes available in the snack aisle.”

Its new line of sweet treats included cookies, mini muffins, loaf cakes, crème cakes, and more.

“There are plenty of brands, including Otis Spunkmeyer, that are making the move from artificial to natural colors, as well as removing ‘funky’ ingredients. For some, that means sacrificing flavor and taste,” Grace said. “In a national blind taste test, we put our ‘No Funky Stuff’ Golden Crème Cakes head to head against a popular national competitor’s food made with artificial colors, and three out of four testers favored the Otis Spunkmeyer snack cake for its delicious flavor.”

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Filed Under: Manufacturing Ingredients Corporate
Top image credit: Flickr; Mike Mozart