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Today’s consumers tend to want their food to be more natural — meaning fewer chemicals and more ingredients with names they can pronounce and understand.
This can present challenges for manufacturers as they try to reformulate products to taste the same, retain texture and mouthfeel, and maintain shelf life — with fewer chemical additives. But another significant problem is getting products to look the same.
More and more manufacturers are moving to use natural colors, which come from fruits, vegetables and plants, in their food. While they are less shelf-stable than lab-created artificial colors, they are more clean-label friendly and aligned with consumer trends.
The market for natural colors is growing quickly. According to Credence Research, revenue from the global natural colors market is expected to reach $1.8 billion by 2022, growing from $1 billion in 2014. More than half of that has gone toward food, though natural colors are also often used in beverages, pet food and products.
Here's what you need to know about the natural colors trend.
Why use them?
Some historians believe colorings have been used in foods since around 1500 BC when Ancient Egyptians may have used them to color candy. Nowadays, food colorings can be used to create the type of look consumers may associate with a product — like making raw meat look more red.
Today’s artificial colors are certified by the Food and Drug Administration, and are subject to testing before they are approved. Even though they are tested, artificial colors are still lab-created chemical mixes.
Natural colors have been in use for decades, but they really took off after a 2007 report in the Lancet. Researchers gave children drinks — some containing artificial colors, some not — and found that the artificial colors made children more hyperactive.
Wary sentiment about artificial colors has grown since then. A 2015 study from Sensient showed that 80% of millennial moms are concerned about artificial colors in food. Two-thirds of the general population shares this concern.
Since then, many companies have been busily reformulating. A Mintel presentation on natural colors shows that almost half of their use in North America is in snacks, meals and bakery. But the colors are found in every area of food and drink, from candy and cereal to products containing fish, meat and eggs.
But consumers don’t just want food that has natural colors on the label. According to a new study from Sensient, they also want food that looks natural. Consumers want bold and vibrant colors that mimic what they see in nature. Of all the colors in the food rainbow, consumers prefer purple, orange and red.
Lycored, another natural coloring company, conducted a similar study last year. They showed consumers several different colors of a strawberry-flavored milk drink, and found that they rated the one with the most natural hue the best-looking.
In this study, 88% of consumers said they would pay more for a product made with natural colors.
“For food and beverage manufacturers there is a clear message here: using natural ingredients in formulations will resonate with shoppers and enable you to charge more for your products, boosting sales and profits,” Christiane Lippert, head of marketing for food at Lycored, said in a statement.
A rush to reformulate
Two years ago marked a turning point in the move to natural colors. Several major manufacturers got on board, reformulating their products to drop artificial colors.
Nestle pledged to drop artificial colors from its products in February 2015. The candymaker gave itself only until the end of 2015 to make the switch, but it had previously removed artificial colors from its candy in the UK.
In April 2015, Kraft (now part of Kraft Heinz) said it would remove artificial colors from its trademark bright orange Macaroni & Cheese.
In June 2015, General Mills pledged to remove artificial colors from its cereals.
“We’re simply listening to consumers and these ingredients are not what people are looking for in their cereal today,” Jim Murphy, president of General Mills’ cereal division, said in a company blog post announcing the changes.
One major hurdle for General Mills was its brightly colored Trix cereal. The multicolored puffs used to contain blue and green pieces. When the company switched to natural colors, comparable hues could not be found, so the cereal is now just purple, orange, yellow and red. However, company officials said that while kids immediately noticed the missing colors, sales still did well.
“We got the taste right, and it’s fun enough for kids, even without the blue and green,” General Mills technology director Erika Smith said at a presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual expo last year.
As of July, there were no artificial colors in 90% of General Mills cereals, according to a company statement.
A year ago, Mars Incorporated pledged to remove artificial colors from all of its products, promising they would be gone within five years.
"We're in the business of satisfying and delighting the people who love our products," Mars CEO and President Grant F. Reid said in a statement. "Eliminating all artificial colors from our human food portfolio is a massive undertaking, and one that will take time and hard work to accomplish. Our consumers are the boss and we hear them. If it's the right thing to do for them, it's the right thing to do for Mars."
Mars products include some of the most colorful in the candy business, like Skittles and M&Ms.
The number of products using natural colors has grown exponentially in the last few years, according to a presentation put together by Mintel. There has been a 77% growth rate for new products using natural colors between 2009 and 2013. Mintel stats presented by natural color company Sensient show 68% of all food and beverage products launched in North America from September 2015 to August 2016 used natural colors.
“Business is incredible,” Cari Reid of California-based natural color manufacturer colorMaker told Food Dive last year. “It just keeps growing and is out of control.”
Grocery stores are getting into the trend as well. In late 2015, Aldi CEO Jason Hart announced that it had removed all artificial colors from its private label products.
“Since more than 90 percent of the products we sell are under our exclusive brands, eliminating these ingredients will have a real impact on the over 30 million people who shop in our stores,” Hart said in a company statement.
Last November, Wal-Mart made a similar pledge to get rid of artificial colors, but did not give a clear timeframe.
Major manufacturers are struggling with getting artificial colors out of other products. General Mills is working on its next natural colors challenge: The marshmallows in Lucky Charms cereal. Kate Gallager, General Mills cereal research and development manager, told Business Insider that the items that were used to put natural colors in Trix — radish, carrot, blueberry, turmeric and annatto seed — all have their own flavors. And it’s apparently harder to mask those flavors on cereal marshmallows than corn puffs.
But for consumer advocates, this progress is not fast enough. Last March, the Center for Science in the Public Interest asked the Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition to put warning labels on products containing artificial colors. With its letter, CSPI submitted more than 2,000 complaints from parents who believe their children were harmed by consuming the dyes. No action has come from this complaint.
While some products have had success removing artificial colors, many others have not. In June, new research published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics showed that 43% of products marketed to children still had artificial food dyes in them. Almost all candies (96%) and fruit snacks (95%) had the chemical-derived colors.