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See a Sip: A Basic Guide To Color Additives

Published on:

June 16, 2021

From cherry cola and lemonade to a rainbow of dyed liqueurs, color affects how we experience food and beverages in surprising ways. Humans are hardwired to respond to color which, in nature, is indicative of a food's nutrient density. That's why worldwide, color additives are recognized as an important ingredient for creating almost all of the food and beverages we consume.

It's All About the Senses

Because eating and drinking are sensory experiences, smell, texture, and appearance-as well as taste-impact our enjoyment of food and beverages. But did you know that most of what we consume is naturally bland of color? Without color additives, food and beverages would not look very appetizing: mint ice cream would be beige, cheese would be white, and hot dogs would be gray (yuck!).

Understandably, consumers tend to prefer foods that also look the way they taste: orange-flavored soda should be orange, for example. Enhancing naturally occurring colors and adding color to otherwise "colorless" food and beverages makes them more appetizing-and fun!

Functionally, adding color also corrects natural color variations and offsets color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture, and storage conditions.

To put it simply, we use color additives (or colorings) to get the bright and bold colors we crave. Colorings can be sourced naturally through roots, plants, bacteria, and even bugs, or they can be synthetically developed in a lab.

How Color Additives Make It Into Our Beverages

Wherever a beverage's color additives may come from, they must be tested and approved for consumption by various organizations found around the world. In the United States, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C), serves as the primary governing body for this purpose. The FDA not only determines what color additives can be used in consumable goods, but also the types of food and beverages in which it can be applied, maximum usage amounts, and how they should be identified on labels.

When evaluating the safety of a new color additive or a new use for a listed color additive, the FDA considers several factors: the short and long-term effects of consumption, composition and properties, manufacturing process, stability, likely amount of consumption/exposure, and the availability of analytical methods for determining its purity and the amount in food.

According to the FDA definition, a color additive "may include both substances derived from natural and synthetic substances." It's also important to note that the FDA doesn't officially recognize the term "natural color." Why? Because, technically speaking, any ingredient added for color is not naturally occurring to the product, so it must therefore always be disclosed on the ingredients statement.

Of course, that hasn't discouraged beverage developers from using naturally occurring color additives, or pigments derived from sources such as vegetables, fruits, minerals, or animals. Two of the most common naturally occurring colors additives are specially formulated fruit and vegetable juice blends, as well as caramel color (essentially caramelized carbohydrates). There are different caramel colors to achieve the reddish-brown shade of a tea, versus the blackish color of a cola or the golden hue of a ginger ale.

Meanwhile, FD&C numbers are given to approved synthetically created color additives that do not exist in nature. These artificial color additives-also known as "certified colors"-are required to undergo "batch certification." During this process, the FDA analyzes a representative sample of each batch of the color additive to ensure it meets the required identity and specifications before it can be used. Prior to certifying a batch, the FDA also analyzes the chemical composition of the color.

Surprisingly, there are only nine certified color additives approved by the FDA for use in food, only four of which are permitted for use in beverages:

  • FD&C Blue No. 1 / Brilliant Blue FCF / (Blue Shade)
  • FD&C Red No. 40 / Allura Red AC / (Red Shade)
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5 / Tartrazine / (Yellow Shade)
  • FD&C Yellow No. 6 / Sunset Yellow FCF / (Orange Shade)

Luckily, these four approved additives come in primary colors, meaning they can be mixed to produce just about any color you can think of. Keep in mind that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) offers separate guidelines for the use of colorings in spirits and beverage alcohol products.

Deciding Between Beverage Colors

A big reason to go artificial is cost. Synthetic dyes can be mass-produced at a fraction of the cost of gathering and processing the materials used to make natural colorings. This is especially true for dark colors: the darker a natural color, the greater its cost.

Another reason is that working with naturally occurring color additives can be challenging. For one, the lighter the color is, the more susceptible it will be to browning and fading (that's not very appetizing to consumers, regardless of the "freshness" of the product!)

There are other caveats, too, like natural colors have a greater tendency to fade with the presence of Vitamin C, and depending on the container type, naturally derived colors tend to fade quickly in a product with noticeable changes after only 6 months on the shelf. Perhaps the most significant limitation of working with naturally occurring color additives is that there is currently no truly natural or stable way to achieve green, purple, or blue shades at the pH level required for commercial beverage products.

There's also the emerging trend of "no color added" which should be considered, depending on your product and goals.

Of course, regardless of what color additives are being used, it is difficult to know how a beverage's color (or other ingredients) will maintain over time without appropriate shelf-life testing on the finished product. That's why the beverage experts at Flavorman not only help visionaries discover their perfect flavor and color combinations, but also provides quality testing to ensure that every sip is as good-looking as it is delicious.

If you've got a great idea for a commercial drink product, Flavorman can help you bring it to life. Just fill out this web form or give us a call at (502) 273-5214 to get started. Let's change what the world is drinking, together.

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