So what’s the alternative?
One firm that thinks it has the answer is LycoRed, which spoke to FoodNavigator-USA as part of our focus on natural ingredients ahead of our Natural & Clean Label Trends 2013 event on June 26.
Unlike beet powder (which can lack heat and light stability) or anthocyanins from grape skin and purple carrot (which can change color in high pH formulations or turn brown in the presence of ascorbic acid), LycoRed’s Tomat-O-Red natural lycopene colorant is stable in the presence of ascorbic acid, keeps its shade in high pH applications and can handle extreme heat, and cold.
Some consumers just don’t like the idea of crushed bugs in their strawberry smoothies
It’s also suitable for vegans and vegetarians, shoppers seeking kosher and halal products, and consumers that just don’t like the idea of crushed bugs in their strawberry smoothies, says LycoRed business development VP Doug Lynch, whose phone started ringing off the hook after some big names ditched carmine in favor of tomato lycopene last year following consumer petitions.
And demand has held up strongly since, he claims. “Our natural colors business in the US is the strongest growth engine in our company.”
As for rival sources of natural reds, “there have been a lot of technological advances to make anthocyanins more stable via encapsulation”, he acknowledges.
“But this all adds cost, and then there are questions about how ‘natural’ they still are.”
Indeed, just how ‘natural’ natural colors are is the source of some debate in the trade (and in legal circles, as opportunistic plaintiffs’ attorneys seek to make a fast buck out of ‘natural’ labeling lawsuits).
The problem is that while the term ‘natural color’ is commonly understood to mean colors found in nature, as opposed, to say, synthetic Yellow #6, it is not - frustratingly - a description firms can use on food labels or marketing in the US, points out Lynch.
The FDA divides food colors into two groups: 'Color additives subject to certification' (eg. synthetic or artificial colors) and 'Color additives exempt from certification' (eg. colors from beets, carrots, turmeric, tomatoes etc).
But just because your color is in the second category doesn’t mean you can call it natural, because according to the FDA, almost all added colors result in an artificially colored food. So it would object to the declaration of any added color as ‘natural’ in the ingredients list unless the color additive is inherent to the product.
A lot of US consumers don’t realize it’s natural, because we can’t call it ‘natural beta-carotene’
Take strawberry yogurt with an all-natural shade of pink from Tomat-O-Red, which can be described as ‘tomato concentrate’ or ‘tomato lycopene color’ on the ingredients list.
‘Natural’ as tomatoes might be, a yogurt manufacturer using Tomat-O-Red is not allowed to list it as ‘natural color’ on the ingredients declaration or shout about how its yogurt is ‘made with natural colors’ on the front of pack, which many consumers don’t realize, says Lynch.
And this is even more frustrating in the case of LycoRed’s Lyc-O-Beta natural yellow and orange colors, which are produced from fermentation of the fungus Blakeslea trispora, and are described on US ingredient labels as ‘Beta-carotene from Blakeslea trispora’ - which doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.
“I think a lot of consumers don’t realize that it’s natural, because it’s not labeled as ‘natural beta-carotene’, so you see some manufacturers still using synthetic beta-carotene because consumers can’t see the difference between ours and theirs from the ingredients list.”
We use all of the tomato
Regulatory woes notwithstanding, demand is growing solidly for both brands, which also benefit from being products of a vertically integrated supply chain, he points out.
If a customer wants more Tomat-O-Red, LycoRed can just grow more tomatoes, he says. And this is not the case for companies sourcing many other natural colors. “Some are weathering increased demand better than others and prices can fluctuate a lot.”
We’re investing a lot of R&D dollars into finding ways to extract color more efficiently
But where is the natural colors market heading in the longer term? And will synthetic colors ultimately disappear from foods and beverages altogether?
Probably not, he predicts, although anything is possible if there is a really significant paradigm shift in the market.
Much will depend on closing the price gap between the two, he says. “We’re investing a lot of R&D dollars into finding ways to extract color more efficiently.”
But sustainability is also becoming a bigger factor as natural colors continue to gain momentum, he says, as growing fruits and vegetables just to extract color is all very well, but what do you do with the biomass that’s left?
“This is another benefit of having vertical integration. We use all of the tomato. The serum is used as a flavor enhancer, and the pulp is used for fiber, colors and our lyc-o-mato health ingredient.”
LycoRed will be showcasing new formulations of vegetarian red colorants under the Tomat-O-Red brand at the IFT show next month (booth #3167). The new formulations provide deeper red lycopene color with blue backgrounds, similar to the shades from carmine.
Stay up to date with the latest clean label trends at Natural & Clean Label Trends 2013, a FREE-to-attend online event hosted by FoodNavigator on June 26.
For full details and to register, click here.