Why natural colors are poised to pop in 2021

Dive Brief:

  • Interest in natural hues is on the rise with the shades red, green, purple and black trending, according to manufacturers GNT Group and DDW The Color House cited by Food Navigator and Food Ingredients First.
  • In addition to applications such as energy drinks, icing and condiments, bakery is a category that has seen “significant experimentation with colors,” Food Ingredients First reported. Similarly, plant-based products — particularly dairy alternatives — also are relying heavily on plant-based hues.
  • Both ingredient companies have spent years developing color lines that feature natural shades. Now, with more people cooking at home and looking for healthy alternatives, natural color solutions are poised to gain further traction.

Dive Insight:

In many ways, color is just as important as taste. For consumers, an appealing color is an invitation to purchase a product. Research has found 90% of shoppers make up their minds about buying a product based on its color and perceived taste.

But not all colors are created equal. Bright reds trigger a person’s appetite because they signal nutrient and calorie-rich. Blue foods represent novelty and excitement, while green denotes freshness. Black is one of the more outside-of-the-box color preferences consumers are moving toward, according to Food Ingredients First.

Purple’s popularity is not a new trend. Two years ago, purple began showing up in a big way in snacks and bakery items, with purple carrots and sweet potatoes making up the base for colors like lavender, mauve, lilac, magenta and dark violet.

Demand for clean labels is rising, but it has been a challenge for natural colorings to live up to the expectations set by their artificial predecessors. Hershey, for example, has struggled to recreate vibrant reds, greens and other colors that give its Jolly Ranchers hard candies their signature brightness using natural colors. General Mills’ reformulated its Trix cereal, but consumers found it “depressing.” General Mills ended up bringing back the classic version with artificial colors.

Manufacturers have struggled to develop shades that are not only vibrant but also have long shelf lives and are stable across a variety of applications. Blue has been a particularly difficult color to reproduce naturally, as well as green and violet, which appeal to consumers both visually and emotionally. Natural yellow colors have also been a struggle because turmeric — a popular natural source — can retain a distinct herbal taste.

However, these difficulties have not detered manufacturers from working on alternatives. GNT produces Exberry, a brand of coloring made from fruit, vegetables and edible plants such as beetroot and chlorophyll. DDW partnered with French food tech firm Fermentalg to bring its Blue Origins natural blue color to life using galdieria sulphuraria microalgae. Chr. Hansen and ADM also have formulations that are based on natural sources such as spirulina and the tropical fruit huito. Meanwhile, the recent discovery of a pigment class called auronidins may be the boost that companies need to offer natural colors that are more visually appealing. 

These new developments, coupled with the growing popularity of healthful and clean eating during the pandemic, could drive further growth for the global natural food color market. Allied Market Research expects sales in the sector to top $3.5 billion by 2027, up from $2.1 billion in 2019. From holiday baking to packaged snacks, consumers looking for cleaner alternatives and cheerful colors are likely to reach for offerings that tout labels filled with natural color alternatives.

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