A bright red strawberry. A striking purple beet. A ripe yellow-green avocado.
These are the thoughts consumers have when they first lay eyes on products without even thinking — and that response can’t be ignored.
Why does color matter? It’s all about the eyes, according to Stephen Talcott professor at Texas A&M's department of nutrition and food science, who said during an Institute of Food Technologists conference panel that your eyes can "usurp" the work of your taste buds in addition to physical senses like smell.
He later commented on Kraft’s "healthier" macaroni and cheese and the loss of its signature bright yellow color.
Kraft's pledge resulted in one iteration of its macaroni and cheese that didn’t sit well with Talcott’s children.
"I know the first time I served the new color — the non-artificial color — Kraft macaroni and cheese to my children, they did not eat it. I mean, 'in a garbage' did not eat it," he said.
Other companies across the food industry — like General Mills and Nestle — have taken steps to remove artificial colors. As consumers insist on natural colors, it’s up to food companies to make the changes and launch new products.
"While it is commendable that companies like General Mills and Nestle are switching out some of their ingredients in response to pressure from consumers and activists it would have been better for their images had they taken the stewardship and led the movement proactively," Kantha Shelke, food scientist and principal at Corvus Blue and a spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists, told Food Dive in an email.
"Not all synthetic colors can be switched to its natural counterpart and whether or not a company has switched to natural colors is not always visible to consumers … because a large part of foods eaten in America today is procured from foodservice outlets are not required to list their ingredients as are retail packaged foods," she added.
When did the 'switch' happen?
"A major prod for the shift to natural colors in the United States is the 2007 Southampton study that linked synthetic color dyes to hyperactivity in children. It is important to point out that European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) did not substantiate a causal link between the hyperactivity and six colors, but food companies are being cautious because of consumer concerns," said Shelke.
During the panel, Talcott noted the change to natural colors is partly due to this, but also due to companies following each other’s lead. "We’re in the job of making consumers happy, so that’s what we’re about," he added.
"Obviously in Europe there's been a push for natural colors for a much longer period of time, most likely due to that Southampton Six regulation, so they have to put their warning label. So obviously that's driven reduction of artificial colors in those types of products over there. We're seeing it pick up here obviously," said Stephanie Mattucci, a global food scientist from Mintel.
The common term "natural" colors is actually called Colors Exempt from Certification, according to the FDA.
What complicates the natural colors industry even more is that regulation isn’t uniform across the world, even when it comes to the same product. For example, a European version of a product and U.S. version of that same product might include different colorants.
Mattucci noted the different opinions between countries — i.e. the U.S. and U.K. — is the foundation of mistrust for consumers and food bloggers.
Times, they are a changin’
But why not just switch to natural colors totally? "Well, because it's kind of a pain, right? Natural colors are gonna be more difficult to handle, are gonna be a little bit more expensive, are not gonna match exactly the color characteristics of the synthetic color and the companies are still trying to work with each market and each set of consumers," M. Monica Giusti, an associate professor and graduate studies chair at the food science and technology department at The Ohio State University, said during a panel.
According to Mintel data, from July 2010 to June 2015, global food and drink product launches with artificial colors fell 21% and natural colors rose 3%.
"It is important to point out that just as not all natural materials are safe, not all synthetics are harmful," Shelke said.
"While synthetic colors used in foods today were vetted by the US FDA to be safe a few years ago, our knowledge of the effects of synthetic colors continues to grow and with it the need to revisit the practice of adding them to foods," she added.
From the sessions to the show floor to the consumer
Like much of the show floor and sessions, the world of natural colors collided between the two. Companies on the show floor exhibited them, an indication that products are available for companies.
These companies included San Joaquin Valley Concentrates and Color Maker. The consumer is proving a benefit to these companies today, and trust is one sure way to the industry can take advantage of them.
"Trust is very important to American consumers and a food company stands to gain the trust of consumers immensely by explaining unambiguously about the colors — synthetic and natural — that are being used in their portfolio, and why and also about the safety of their products," according to Shelke.
However, as the trend continues, the expectation for the industry is becoming all the more clear.
"Before it depended on what type of product you were and what type of client you were positioning. If you were for kids, I’d probably say you should consider reformulating...but now as the industry moves towards it, it’s gonna be that expectation that if it is positioned as natural or healthy, it should not have any of those artificial colors or things like that," Mattucci said.
As for advice for companies looking to make the switch, Mattucci said it depends on the product.
"There’s a lot of challenges especially depending on what type of colors you’re reformulating with. Obviously blues and greens are really difficult," she said.
Regardless of the complications surrounding food colorants, one thought rings true: "The color represents the identity of your product," Giusti said.