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Using Clean Label, Plant-Based Natural Colors for Meat, Fish and Seafood Alternatives

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Plant-based 2.0: The importance of clean-label colors in meat and fish alternatives

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Brands can gain an edge on the highly competitive meat and seafood alternatives market by leveraging the power and functionality of color to entice consumers with clean and clear label shades that mimic the appearance and behavior of their traditional counterparts.

Interest in plant-based foods has never been greater

The plant-based sector is enjoying exponential growth, with a 2021 Bloomberg report suggesting alternative meat product retail sales could grow from $4.2 billion in 2020 to $74 billion by 2030.[1]​ The range of products and categories is continuously expanding, too, with shoppers now able to purchase everything from chicken nuggets to streaky bacon to salmon steaks.

This mainstreaming of the category has also brought greater competition, resulting in added pressure to improve the taste, texture, and appearance of products. Manufacturers can insulate themselves from market volatility by gratifying modern consumers, who have never been more discerning.

Flexitarians, for example, have played a major role in the sector’s growth. Consumer concerns around health and sustainability have led many to cut down on their overall meat consumption and introduce plant-based alternatives that can successfully replicate the experience. These shoppers are helping to drive demand for plant-based products with clean and clear ingredient lists. An FMCG Gurus survey of US consumers shows:[2]

  • 75% of those who eat meat substitutes do so because they consider them to be healthier
  • 78% consider it important or very important that alternative meat products are naturally formulated
  • 56% check the ingredient list most or all of the time when purchasing plant-based food and drink
  • 78% think it is important that plant-based products are made with recognized ingredients

Appearance is a key driver for consumer acceptance

The appearance of plant-based products plays a crucial role in determining consumer acceptance. Color not only helps shape initial expectations of product quality but can also influence enjoyment. Research shows the hue and intensity of food colors affects the perception of flavor and aroma.[3]​ The FMCG Gurus survey also found:[4]

  • 73% consider the color and appearance of plant-based food and drink to be important
  • 81% of these shoppers say color sets expectations on flavor
  • 82% expect plant-based products to be made with colors from fruits, vegetables, and plants

Spices have traditionally been used for both flavor and imparting color to plant-based meat alternatives. However, their impact on flavor limits the possibilities to achieve the desired visual appeal. Colors that are made from fruits and vegetables can provide a highly effective alternative because they can deliver colors from across the rainbow with minimal impact on flavor. They also offer a perfect synergy with the plant-based category, enabling manufacturers to deliver visually appealing products with clean and clear labels.

By utilizing a variety of plant-based colors such as concentrates from radish, beetroot, carrots, chokeberry, and peppers, the colors provide an expanded toolbox for developers to mimic the appearance of animal products from burgers to salami to salmon. They can even be used to replicate the color-shifting characteristics of red meat during cooking.

Leveraging the functionality of plant-based colors

Plant-based colors are made up of edible fruits, vegetables, and plants produced without the use of chemical solvents. Instead, they are created using simple methods that consumers would use in their own kitchens, such as pressing, chopping, filtering, and boiling.

Nonetheless, there are technical considerations to bear in mind when using naturally rich pigments from fruits and vegetables since they have varying color hues, temperature and pH sensitivities, and other characteristics. Selecting the right options will depend on the desired functionality.

Meat alternatives such as ham, bacon, and salami are best suited to stable red colors that can cope with high pH levels and a high heat processing step. Generally, colors from radish and sweet potato concentrates are a good choice due to their ability to withstand high temperatures. Ultimately, however, the color selection and dosage will depend on a range of key factors, such as the pH, base color, and the desired hue of the final product.

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Some meat alternatives aim to mimic the experience of cooking red meat, changing from a bloody red appearance while raw to a ‘rare’, ‘medium’, or ‘well-done’ brown.

One means of achieving this color shift is to blend a selection of different fruits and vegetables, such as beetroot, carrot, peppers, apple, and chokeberry. These raw materials have different color hues and heat sensitivities. By choosing the right selection and ratio of colors for the formulation, it is possible to achieve a shift from the ‘bloody’ raw state to the desired cooked appearance.

GNT recently launched a solution that enables a significant improvement on color shift compared to standard plant-based concentrates alone. EXBERRY® Compound Autumn Red is a flowable red powder of encapsulated carrot concentrate. The encapsulation melts as the temperature increases during the cooking process and releases the carrot concentrate, facilitating a change in color similar to that of real red meat.

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A variety of fish and seafood analogues are now launching too, from whole shrimp to salmon and tuna filets. New processing technologies allow plant-based colors to be incorporated not only in the mix but also to the exterior. This innovation could be used to mimic the coral stripes on cooked shrimp or when non-homogenous color is desired. In these product categories, utilizing plant-based colors can also mean delivering a certain color concentration and viscosity to allow for topical spray applications. In addition, the color must remain stable during any type of cooking preparation that the protein may undergo by either the home consumer or in a foodservice setting.   

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Endless opportunities for plant-based color

The growth trend for plant-based meat alternatives is not slowing down. With competition increasing, there has never been a more opportune time for meat and fish substitute manufacturers to maximize their products’ appeal through clean-label colors.

Delivering appetizing shades alongside clean and clear label declarations, plant-based color concentrates enable brands to connect in a meaningful way with today’s health-conscious consumers.

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1. Bloomberg Intelligence 'Plant-Based Foods Poised for Explosive Growth' (2021)

2. FMCG Gurus 'USA - Meat & Plant-Based Survey - Q3 2020'

3. Science Friday 'Can You Taste The Color?' (2017)

4. FMCG Gurus 'USA - Meat & Plant-Based Survey - Q3 2020'