The search for a true blue

Consumers want it, but nobody's found a natural source

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When people are asked their favorite color, no matter who they are or where they live, the most common answer is blue, according to Forbes.

In marketing applications like font and packaging, blue is seen as a sign of intelligence, stability and trustworthiness. The beloved "Blue Box" of Kraft Heinz's Mac & Cheese is just one example of a brand building itself on the foundation of blue — it's a color that is at once eye-catching and reassuring, and is likely to satisfy the majority of people.

In food products, however, blue tends to represent novelty and excitement. Vibrant artificial blues have been used to dye candy, ice cream, yogurt, cereal and even ketchup throughout the years, and consumers have grown to regard the color as a staple in the food space. 

Nowadays, blue is beginning to disappear from food applications. Growing consumer demand for simple, natural ingredients have extended to food coloring, and manufacturers have begun to phase out artificial colors in order to remain competitive. Blue 1 was not a member of the infamous Southampton Six, a group of artificial colors U.K. researchers linked to hyperactivity in children in 2007, but it is the only dye that crosses the blood-brain barrier that protects brain tissue from toxins. Scientists aren't sure what effect artificial blue has on the brain, but this phenomenon further fueled consumer fears over synthetic materials in food. 

Many companies have found comparable replacements to artificial reds, purples and yellows in nature, but few have found a worthy shade of blue. 

It begs the question: How is this color so elusive? And why is it so important for manufacturers to get it right?

Blue mold 

Blue means stop 

Evolution has predisposed humans to have different reactions to colors. Bright reds trigger our appetites because they signal nutrient and calorie-rich foods like red meat, while greens don't elicit much of a reaction because plants are associated with empty calories and less potential for energy. Yellows and purples are also desirable, but in nature, blue is a sign of danger.

There are very few blue foods found in nature, and certain shades of blue elicit instinctual fears of spoiled meat, mold, and poisonous fruit. 

Because of this, it's crucial for blue food products to be vibrant shades of blue — or blues that are more reflective of paint color than natural hues. This was easy to do with Blue 1, or "brilliant blue", an artificial color made from coal tar and oil, and Blue 2, a "synthetic version of the plant-based indigo that has a long history of a textile dye."

Consumers are also very sensitive to color changes, and associate them with changes of flavor. Even if a candy's flavor remains exactly the same, a duller or creamier color may cause consumers to believe that it tastes less sweet than a brighter shade. 

These colors created the rich royal blues found in candy like M&Ms, Skittles and Sour Patch Kids, as well as cereals like Cap'N Crunch Berries and Trix, and a host of other products. Now that Nestlé USA, General Mills, Frito-Lay, Kraft Heinz, Campbell's, Mondelez International and other major food companies have made commitments to phase out artificial colors in lieu of natural dyes and colorants, the industry is turning to nature to find substitutions to the colors consumers demand — but most are coming up empty.


Does spirulina have manufacturers feeling blue?

The few blue foods that can be found in nature (and can be safely consumed by humans) rarely produce extractable blue colors. Blueberry juice, for example, runs purple. 

Some food scientists have experimented with combinations of blue gardenia flowers, mushrooms, aged red wine, cabbage and more to see if they yield a desirable shade, but nothing quite matches the classic blue that consumers and manufacturers desire.

At least, not yet. 

There appears to be one final frontier manufacturers are pursuing to capture this elusive color, and it's found, appropriately enough, under rivers of blue water.

Spirulina is a non-toxic blue-green algae grown in freshwater lakes, rivers and ponds. It's being used increasingly as a dietary food supplement because of its high yields of protein, iron and other nutrients that consumers seek from their food and beverage products.

In 2013, Mars was given permission by the FDA to create the first natural blue food color approved for use in the U.S. out of spirulina. 

Since then, the candy giant has committed to removing all artificial colors from all of its food applications, excluding its line of dog food. 

"Removing all artificial colors from a human food portfolio that features more than 50 brands represents a complex challenge," CEO Grant Reid said in an announcement last February. "The company believes the process of developing alternative colors, ensuring their safety and quality, obtaining regulatory approval and introducing the new ingredients across the entirety of its human food portfolio around the world will take about five years."

A transition of this scale would be arduous on its own, but the number of blue gums and candies produced by Mars makes this especially challenging. 

Mars has spent years experimenting with spirulina, and even though the plant may provide the closest color match to Blue 1, it's unpredictable — sometimes its blues come out blotchy, and it can yield unpleasant flavors that overpower the taste of the candy it colors.

Worse still, even if food scientists manage to extract a stable, rich blue from spirulina, there isn't enough global supply of the algae to sustain the candy industry. In fact, a Mars executive told New York Times reporter Malia Wollan last year that in order for the company to switch only its M&Ms to blue dyes derived from spirulina, the company would "need twice the current global supply" of the plant.

Still, if spirulina did prove to be a reliable source of blue, food companies could expand their plants to include ponds to grow their own algae, though this would likely be a costly addition to supply chains. 

The wild blue yonder 

It will be interesting to see what happens first: will manufacturers finally create and mass-produce natural blue food dyes, or will consumers adjust their expectations for blue food colors and corresponding blue "flavors"? 

Humans have come to accept, and even crave, blue-colored foods after millennia of viewing them as a health risk. It's possible that consumer perceptions could be reshaped to accept more natural blues as a tasty, desirable replacement to the dazzling shades of Blue 1 and Blue 2.

Manufacturers could encourage this change of view through targeted marketing campaigns and emphasis on the health benefits of all natural colors, especially if the color is sourced from nutrient-rich spirulina. Conversely, they could also push the possible health risks of the artificial blues used by their competitors to establish authority in whatever food space they occupy.

Food brands can also rely on vibrant packaging to make up for more subdued shades, as these entice consumers almost as much as the colors of products themselves. 

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Filed Under: Manufacturing Ingredients
Top image credit: Flickr, @rseattle