Foods tak­ing on new hues with­out ar­ti­fi­cial dyes


Moz­zarella cheese at Pan­era restau­rants won’t be as glar­ingly white. Banana pep­pers in Sub­way sand­wiches won’t be the same ex­act shade of yel­low. Trix ce­real will have two fewer col­ors.

Food mak­ers are purg­ing their prod­ucts of ar­ti­fi­cial dyes as peo­ple in­creas­ingly es­chew any­thing in their food they don’t feel is nat­u­ral. But repli­cat­ing the vivid col­ors Amer­i­cans ex­pect with in­gre­di­ents like beets and car­rots isn’t al­ways easy.

In fact, Gen­eral Mills couldn’t find good al­ter­na­tives for the blue and green pieces in Trix, so the com­pany is get­ting rid of those col­ors when the ce­real is re­for­mu­lated later this year. The red pieces — which will be col­ored with radishes and straw­ber­ries — will also look dif­fer­ent.

“We haven’t been able to get that same vi­brant color,” said Kate Gal­lager, Gen­eral Mills’ ce­real devel­oper.

The shift away from ar­ti­fi­cial dyes rep­re­sents the latest chap­ter for food col­or­ing in the U.S., which has had a rocky history. As re­cently as 1950, the U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion said chil­dren be­came sick af­ter eat­ing an or­ange Hal­loween candy that con­tained a dye. The agency even­tu­ally whit­tled down its list of ap­proved color ad­di­tives af­ter find­ing sev­eral had caused “se­ri­ous ad­verse ef­fects.”

Now, more com­pa­nies say they are re­plac­ing ar­ti­fi­cial dyes with col­ors made from fruits, veg­eta­bles and spices, which are widely con­sid­ered “nat­u­ral,” although the FDA doesn’t clas­sify them that way. But these present more chal­lenges than ar­ti­fi­cial dyes.

In ad­di­tion to cost­ing more, col­ors from fruits and veg­eta­bles can be sen­si­tive to heat and acid­ity. And since they’re used in higher doses to achieve bold­ness, tweaks to other parts of recipes may be needed. Such ad­just­ments can be tricky for com­pa­nies that man­u­fac­ture on mas­sive scales.

Still, com­pa­nies want to court peo­ple like Heather Thal­witzer, a 31-year-old home­maker in Mel­bourne, Florida. Thal­witzer avoids ar­ti­fi­cial col­ors be­cause she wants her 6-year-old son to eat qual­ity food and she said red dye has been linked to “ma­nia.”

She has tried al­ter­na­tives like nat­u­rally col­ored sprin­kles from Whole Foods, which her hus­band thinks taste like fish. But she can get along with­out such prod­ucts. One year, she made cup­cakes topped with a sin­gle blue­berry for her son’s birth­day.

There are times when Thal­witzer makes ex­cep­tions, such as when her son is at a friend’s party.

“I’ll let him have the birth­day cake,” she said. “But I’ll cringe.”

The Evo­lu­tion of Nat­u­ral

Part of the chal­lenge with col­ors from nat­u­ral sources is that the range of hues has been lim­ited. Blues, for in­stance, weren’t widely avail­able the U.S. un­til 2013. That’s when the FDA ap­proved a pe­ti­tion by candy maker Mars Inc. to use spir­ulina ex­tract as col­or­ing in gum and candy.

The alga can now also be used in ice creams, drink mixes and other prod­ucts.

“That was a big thing for us,” said Ste­fan Hake, CEO of the U.S. di­vi­sion of nat­u­ral color maker GNT.

At the com­pany’s of­fice in Tar­ry­town, N.Y., Hake demon­strated how to get blue from spir­ulina by pour­ing a liq­ue­fied ver­sion of it through a cof­fee fil­ter to iso­late the right color com­po­nents.

The ap­proval of spir­ulina ex­tract also opened up the world of greens, which can be made by mix­ing blue and yel­low. It turns out plants like spinach brown in heat and aren’t ideal for col­or­ing.

Get­ting ap­proval for a new color source can take years, but it’s one way com­pa­nies can fill out their pal­ette of nat­u­ral hues. In com­ing weeks, an in­dus­try group plans to sub­mit a pe­ti­tion to use the carthamus in saf­flower for yel­low, ac­cord­ing to color maker Sen­sient Tech­nolo­gies.

“It’s just one more that might be another crayon in the crayon box,” said Steve Mor­ris, Sen­sient’s gen­eral man­ager of food col­ors for North Amer­ica.

Sen­sient also de­vel­oped a “de­odor­iz­ing process” to re­move fla­vors from in­gre­di­ents. That al­lowed it to in­tro­duce an or­ange for bev­er­ages made from pa­prika.

Mor­ris de­clined to de­tail the com­pany’s process. But since the in­gre­di­ent is not “fun­da­men­tally chang­ing the form,” he said the in­gre­di­ents are still within FDA guide­lines of per­mis­si­ble color sources.

Sen­sient said three-quar­ters of its new projects for clients in North Amer­ica in­volve nat­u­ral col­ors. Glob­ally, its sales of col­ors — nat­u­ral and syn­thetic — comes to about US$300 mil­lion.

Col­or­ing In­side the Lines

There are seven syn­thetic col­ors ap­proved for broad use in foods. But these dyes can be mixed to cre­ate a wide range of col­ors. The col­ors are made by syn­the­siz­ing raw ma­te­ri­als from petroleum, ac­cord­ing to the FDA.

Syn­thetic col­ors still dom­i­nate in the U.S., but some cite a study link­ing them to hy­per­ac­tiv­ity in chil­dren in call­ing for them to be phased out. Lisa Lef­ferts at the Cen­ter for Science in the Public In­ter­est also says ar­ti­fi­cial col­ors can be used in de­cep­tive ways.

“They mask the ab­sence of in­gre­di­ents,” she said.

Trop­i­cana’s Twis­ter in Cherry Berry Blast fla­vor, for in­stance, list ap­ple and grape juice con­cen­trates, but no cher­ries or berries. A syn­thetic color gives it the ap­pear­ance of hav­ing the lat­ter fruits.

Of course, nat­u­ral col­ors also are used to make foods more ap­peal­ing and send vis­ual sig­nals about the in­gre­di­ents they con­tain. Sub­way says it will stop us­ing a syn­thetic dye to give its banana pep­pers, but will main­tain their bright yel­low look with turmeric.

Some say a switch to nat­u­ral color sources isn’t yet pos­si­ble be­cause it might turn off cus­tomers, although they’re look­ing into how to change.

“We have to de­liver bold col­ors and fla­vors, or peo­ple will stop buy­ing,” said Will Papa, chief re­search and de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cer at Her­shey, which makes Jolly Ranch­ers, Twiz­zlers and Reese’s.

Mars, which makes M&M’s and Skit­tles, said it isn’t yet us­ing the spir­ulina ex­tract it pe­ti­tioned to have ap­proved.

Not ev­ery­one thinks get­ting rid of ar­ti­fi­cial col­ors hinges on find­ing ex­act matches with nat­u­ral al­ter­na­tives. Pan­era is bet­ting peo­ple won’t mind that its moz­zarella cheese might have a yel­low­ish hue af­ter the re­moval of ti­ta­nium diox­ide. For cook­ies with candy-coated choco­lates, the nat­u­ral col­ors it is test­ing are also duller.

Over time, peo­ple will get used to the more muted hues of foods with nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents, said Tom Gumpel, Pan­era’s head baker. “You have to re­move some of your ex­pec­ta­tions,” he said.


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