The FDA, Health Canada and EFSA all say 4-MeI (4-Methylimidazole) - an impurity generated naturally during the manufacture of caramel colors III and IV and many other foods - does not pose a health risk at levels currently used in foods and beverages.
However, many firms have been seeking out low MeI caramel colors or other alternatives in order to meet the requirements of California’s Proposition 65, or in response to pressure from groups such as Consumer Reports, which recently warned of “concerning” levels of 4-MeI in some soft drinks.
The FDA is also reviewing new data on 4-MeI, although it has stressed that it “has no reason to believe” that it needs to revise its position.
New veg-juice derived natural blue has been key to creating new brown shades
Available in liquid, powder and dispersion forms, Sensient’s new natural brown colors “provide rich brown alternatives to caramel and certified colors”, that are heat, light and pH stable, and are suitable for multiple applications, in shades from “buttery yellow brown to deep auburn”, claims the firm.
"Natural Brown extracted from natural vegetable juice sources delivers a clean label including 4-MeI free, cocoa and caramel color replacements,” said Mike Geraghty, president of the color group at Sensient Technologies Corporation.
But are they new, or is the company just highlighting what’s on offer in its portfolio in the wake of recent negative PR over 4-MeI?
Steve Morris, General Manager, Sensient U.S. Food Colors, told FoodNavigator-USA: “Before our launch of natural blue, we offered 4-MeI free natural brown options; however their application use was limited to confections and fat-based systems. Now, our natural brown provides a solution to 4-MeI across various applications segments including beverage, dairy, baking, confectionery, processed food and pet food.
“Previously our color box had reds, oranges and yellows, but now we’ve got the natural blue we’ve been able to create deep browns, greens, intense purples and other shades.”
So what’s in them? It depends on the shade, he said: “The ingredients include vegetable juice, beta-carotene, annatto, paprika and/or turmeric and consist of natural sources that are exempt from certification. In addition, we offer Class I, II and low 4-MeI caramel colors.”
For example, the natural blue color sits in the FDA's vegetable juice subcategory of color additives exempt from certification (21 CFR 73.260), he said.
With natural brown, we have the ability to replace class III and class IV caramel shades with comparable color stability
So how does the cost compare to caramel colors?
“This varies depending on the customer application,” said Morris. However, you might have to use more of the vegetable-derived natural brown in certain applications to achieve the same hue.
And from a technical perspective, are the non-caramel derived browns up to the job?
“With natural brown, we have the ability to replace class III and class IV caramel shades with comparable color stability,” he said. “In addition, caramel can have a distinct flavor impact in certain applications. With our new natural brown options we can provide a clean taste profile to finished products.”
Is caramel color ‘natural’?
But is caramel color - which is produced via heating carbs such as cane sugar, corn syrup or glucose from wheat in the presence of food grade acids, alkalis or salts - ‘natural’?
In the absence of a legal definition of ‘natural’, there is no clear answer, so some firms using caramel colors may describe their products as ‘all-natural’ while others choose not to.
However, when it comes to what you can put on the ingredients list, the law is clear. Firms are not allowed to use the term ‘natural caramel color’ on ingredients lists, just as they are not allowed to say ‘natural yellow color’ if they are using turmeric as a color, as according to the FDA, almost all added colors result in an artificially colored food.
So for the ingredients deck, firms must list it as ‘caramel color’ (if it is being used as a color), just as they must say, for example ‘colored with beet juice’ if they add beet juice for coloring purposes.
The FDA divides food colors into two groups: ‘Color additives subject to certification’ (commonly referred to as synthetic colors such as ‘Red 40’) and ‘Color additives exempt from certification’ (commonly understood as natural colors from beets, turmeric etc). Caramel color - regulated under 21 CFR 73.85 - is also exempt from certification.
*Herbafood Ingredients, which is promoting its Herbarom branded apple extracts as ‘a fruit-based alternative to burnt sugar [ie. caramel color]’ in Europe, told us that its extracts “contain sugars, minerals and fruit acids which can round off the taste in many products” and create a “light texture to bakery products”.
Herbarom products are classified as colouring foodstuffs in the EU and labelled as ‘apple extract’ or ‘colouring apple extract’.
Sensient said it could not comment on Herbarom products specifically, but said “brown apple extracts are not permitted as a color additive in the US.”