Natural colours lost their appeal when synthetic colours arrived on the scene, as they provide less consistency, heat stability and colour range than their chemical alternatives. Moreover, natural colours are more expensive.
However, as consumer awareness increases over the link between diet and health and trends move towards more clean-label products, natural colourings are back in fashion.
One of the most significant studies deterring consumers from artificial colourings was the Southampton Study, published last September in the Lancet, which found that a concoction of artificial colours led to hyperactivity in children.
As a result of such studies as well as new legislation coming in regarding the labelling of colours, many major companies, particularly those involved in producing products aimed at children, have been searching for natural alternatives to their synthetic colours.
The value of the international colourings market was estimated at around $1.15bn in 2007 (€731m), up 2.5 per cent from $1.07bn (680m) in 2004, according to Leatherhead Food International (LFI).
It said the most important single colour variety is caramel, with sales worth over $112m (€71m) in 2007. Meanwhile, other natural colours were worth $353m (€224m) in this year, up 4.6 per cent from 2004.
Natural colours now make up 31 per cent of the colourings market, compared with 40 per cent for synthetics, according to LFI.
It said: “Natural colours are steadily increasing their market share, driven by the consumer trend towards all things natural and away from artificial additives.”
Furthermore, LFI predicted that “natural colours will push synthetics into second position in sectoral terms in the medium-term”.
The UK has been leading Europe’s move away from additive- and preservative-free products, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, which found that 1,019 such products were launched last year, representing a quarter of all launches that year.
Germany came in second place for launches of additive- and preservative-free products, with 388 new launches, and France was third with 322.
Chr Hansen is the considered to be the largest single company in the natural colourings market, having been acquired by the PAI Partners private equity firm in 2005. Meanwhile, DD Williamson is a leading caramel colour supplier.
Popular colours in the industry
‘Classic’ natural colours that have proved durability and efficiency over the past few years include annatto, according to Lars Wodschow, director of communications for Chr Hansen. This comes from the seeds of the shrub bixa orellana L. and is mainly used for producing various shades or orange.
Another popular natural colouring is tumeric, a root from the ginger family, which provides yellow shades.
Wodschow told FoodNavigator.com: “What Chr Hansen find particularly interesting is the growing interest among manufacturers of food, confectionary and beverages for ‘new’ natural colours, which meet the growing consumers demand for both E-number-free colours but also colours of an origin which adds a certain exotic or health-related value to the product.”
In line with this, Chr Hansen has develop its FruitMax range, which covers all application areas and consists of 20 different products from edible fruits, vegetables, spices and plants that provide a range of shades.
Jody Renner-Nantz, Food Science Chemist, DD Williamson Support Center, said: “‘Hot’ colours that everyone wants include blue stable at pH 3 and plant-derived red stable at pH 4 to 7. DD Williamson's partner, colorMaker offers a blue colour stable at pH 5.5 to 7.”
Nestle Rowntree promised to remove all artificial colourings from its confectionery in 2005, finding alternatives for all synthetic colours previously used in the products.
While searching an alternative for Brilliant Blue (E133), it removed its blue Smarties from the shelves, substituting it with white ones until a sufficient natural alternative was found.
This February, it found a solution in Spirulina, produced from two species of cyanbacteria (blue-green lake algae). It is commonly used in the industry as a dietary supplement as it contains unusually high levels of protein, between 55 and 77 per cent by dry weight.
Last month, Chr Hansen introduced a natural hibiscus extract to give a bright red colour to beverages, while also having a standardised anthocyanin content. Earlier this month,
DD Williamson launched an anthocyanin purple sweet potato colorant in its expansion of its naturally-derived colors portfolio.
The new product provides a red hue in acidic conditions and potential application include beverages, sherbet, salad dressings, fruit preparations and sauces.
As well as seeking new alternative colourings, companies have been introducing products to improve the qualities of existing natural colours.
Slovenian company Vitiva has developed a variant of its Inolens rosemary extract to boost the stability of carotenoids and other natural colourings, without having to undo their appeal through the use of synthetic preservatives. It claims to extend shelf life by eliminating rancidity and colour fading.