2022 QUARTER 2

Natural versus synthetic food colourants

Published in Food Manufacturing Africa


The debate around which is the better option between natural and synthetic colourants has been raging for quite some time, with most food manufacturers still opting for more stable synthetic solutions. This is particularly true for producers in Sub-Saharan Africa, given the complexities of appeal/appearance, stability, affordability, storage, shelf life and extreme climate impact on foodstuffs produced in Africa and consumed on the continent, explains David Kruger, sales representative at Quantum Colours CC.

WHILE QUANTUM COLOURS primarily supplies synthetic colours to the food industry, they have also recognised the value in offering a wider selection of solutions to our customer base. Realising the advantages in making the change to natural colours, and managing this change, is often a challenge.

Vivid bright colours, achieved through the use of synthetics, are often not possible or at least not easily achieved by using natural colourants. There are various factors to consider when using natural colours to replace more stable synthetics in a food system. Factors such as background colour, the food matrix itself (the micro- and macro ingredient impacts), as well as packaging and processing conditions are just some of the elements to consider when choosing an appropriate colour source. Quantum Colours is among the top colour suppliers, and they can assist food processors and producers to navigate a minefield of information in making the change to a natural or nature- identical solution, while still offering a wide variety of synthetic colourants to suit your customers’ needs.

For yellow shades, beta-carotene is offered in various sources and in varying strengths to cater to a variety of customer requirements for naturality and depth of shade. This versatile colour is naturally oil soluble and is offered in emulsified water- soluble variants, often encapsulated to make it a more robust alternative to Sunset yellow and/or Quinoline yellow (depending on strength). It is also stabilised further by the complimentary use of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and can be used in acidic environments, making it perfect for use in beverages. It is also used in confectionery, snacks, and dairy products as well as fats and oils. Depending on the specific hue desired, turmeric (which is also naturally oil soluble) can be a great alternative for an even brighter shade of yellow. Turmeric is significantly more sensitive to light and therefore great care must be taken in choosing the appropriately processed and/or treated colour for specific applications. Special packaging requirements may also be required for the specific end- product due to the colour photosensitivity and product shelf life.

Red shades have been dominated by the use of carmine (cochineal) offerings in the past, given the stability, versatility and bright pinkish red to bright-red shade (or bright to deeper orange shade from carminic acid) these colours offer. The source albeit natural, not being a vegetable source, has seen this colour fall out of favour with food developers and consumers alike. To find such a versatile and stable offering remains somewhat of a challenge given religious and vegan objections, though there are few alternative options to consider. One such offering is anthocyanins, with the vegetable varieties from black carrot and/or sweet potato being more common alternatives to red radish and elderberry for example, and various options for blending for increased stability. The shade provided by anthocyanin is often impacted by the pH of the final product and especially over its shelf life, so it is critical to evaluate the most suitable option given the various factors that can impact product stability.

There are also solutions such as beetroot red (betanin pigment) for a more pinkish-red offering, lacking in stability for higher heat application areas and a lot more sensitive to light sources, with lycopene (a carotenoid pigment) being a more stable red on offer in certain application areas.

“Quantum Colours is among the top colour suppliers.

As titanium dioxide is falling out of favour as a whitening or opacifying agent/colour option, the need for suitable alternatives beyond calcium carbonate, which has its own challenges in application, has grown. Offerings based on starch has proliferated and proven to be worthy solutions, with numerous blends being offered. Quantum Colours has sourced viable solutions for various application areas and has also developed our own offering called Glacier for use beyond coating systems for pharmaceutical applications into the food industry.

Quantum Colours are continuously looking at various technologies to improve the effective use of natural colours and to bring increased stability to these products. An improved encapsulation technique is just one of the solutions being explored at present.

With an increased demand for natural colours and the continued growth of synthetic colours, it is evident that synthetic and natural colours will continue to co-exist and may not necessarily be pitted against each other. Quantum Colours is, therefore, suitably placed to meet customers’ growing demand for these items. As noted, blends of similar (or different) colour sources can be considered to assist in giving an improved balance of each individual colour’s strength in the end application. This is another area where they will be focusing their attention on, with some colour blends already on offer, either for improved shade differentiation or improved performance, while colouring foodstuffs such as orange carrot or redbeet concentrate will continue to be of value for improved clean label requirements.