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Natural & synthetic food colourants: types & examples

Colourants are used to enhance the appearance of food, beverages and even pharmaceutical products.

 

Food colour additives are typically grouped into two categories: natural and synthetic. Our Food & Beverage ingredients experts are taking a look at the differences, advantages and examples of each.

The importance and benefits of food colourants

It’s often said that we ‘eat with our eyes first’, which means that good-looking food is better for marketing and sales. Not only can colour stimulate our appetite, but we prefer the appearance of food products to match its flavour. The colour of food is associated with the taste.

How would you feel about green, purple, pink, orange, teal or blue ketchup? Heinz tried this in 2003 — evidently, consumers evidently did not take too kindly. Green is associated with vegetables, not tangy sweetness. Needless to say, the line has since been discontinued and Heinz’ ketchup is back to its reassuring red.

Did you know that food colour can even affect how we perceive and experience taste? In some instances it can even override it; in one study, adding tasteless red dye to white wine caused it to be described as red wine!

Food whose colour looks ‘off’ can be perceived as being inferior quality and not fresh. In the competitive food and drink sector, the right choice of colourant can make all the difference between basket or bust. Around Easter, Halloween and Christmas, customers might expect their food products to boast a seasonally-appropriate tint.

There’s also a functional argument for colourants; they can protect flavours and vitamins in the food that may be damaged by exposure to UV.

If it wasn’t for food colourings, many of the foods we enjoy every day would not look appealing at all. They are an incredibly important category of ingredients for food and drink producers, commonly used on:

  • Baked goods: Cakes, cookies, pastries, bread
  • Beverages: Juices, sports drinks, smoothies
  • Confectionery: Sweets, gummies, chocolate, icing
  • Dairy products: Ice cream, yoghurt, cheese, butter
  • Pharmaceuticals and supplements: Vitamins, nutritional supplements, children’s medication
  • Meats and seafood: Sausages, canned meat, bacon, cured meat, farm salmon, crab, shrimp
  • Sauces: Ketchups, mustard, marinades, salad dressings
  • Snacks: Crisps, popcorn, cereal bars

Types of food colourants

Natural colourants

A natural food colour is any pigment or substance extracted from a vegetal, microbiological, animal or mineral source that is capable of colouring foods or drinks. These natural sources include fruits, vegetables, animals, spices, seeds, insects and algae.

Most nature-derived colourants undergo an appropriate amount of processing to concentrate and stabilise the colour pigments. They will carry an E number.

Some natural colourants do not carry an E number. These are colouring foodstuffs. There is no use of solvents or chemicals involved in their production — they are simply foods that can add colour, hence the name. They don’t classify as technological additives, so food and drink manufacturers don’t need to declare an E-number on the packaging — ‘clean label’, in other words.

Examples of natural food colourants & colouring foodstuffs

Source Colours E number

Carotenoids (such as carrots, paprika, tomatoes)

Yellow, orange, red

E160, E161, E164

Chlorophyllin (nettles, grass, alfalfa)

Green

E140, E141

Anthocyanin (blueberries, blackberries, raspberries)

Violet, red, blue, purple

E163

Betanin (Beets)

Bluish-red

E162

Sugar/caramel

Brown

E150

Turmeric

Orange

E100

Carmine

Red

E120

Coffee

Brown

Cocoa

Brown

Saffron

Yellow

Spirulina

Blue

Spinach

Green

Matcha

Green

Tomato concentrate 

Red

 

Within an E number, certain sources can be specified. For example, within E160, there is:

  • Carrot (E160a): Orange
  • Annatto (E160b): Reddish-orange
  • Paprika (E160c): Reddish-orange
  • Lycopene (E160d): Red

Contrary to popular belief, E number does not necessarily mean bad — it’s simply a code for a substance used as a food additive.

One benefit to this category of food colourings is that they are from natural sources, which can be promoted on packaging and marketing materials — customers are increasingly health focused and knowledgeable about food labelling. They want to make natural choices. As well as offering colouring, some natural colourants can also provide nutritional value and taste to the foods.

A downside is that they can often be more expensive than their synthetic counterparts, and the colours can be less vibrant or stable; they might not retain their colour for as long and can be more difficult to blend to make other colours.

Synthetic colourants

Also known as artificial food colours, these are manufactured in a laboratory by chemical reaction. They are popular for providing an intense, uniform colour.

As a rule, artificial colourants are more cost effective, stable and vibrant than their natural counterparts. Products created with them have a longer-lasting colour; it’s also easier to blend them to create new colours. As well as food production, they have extensive use in pharmaceutical products.

Examples of artificial food colourants

Name Colour E number
Allura Red Red E129
Ponceau 4R Red E124
Azorubine Maroon E122
Sunset Yellow Orange E110
Tartrazine Yellow E102
Quinoline Yellow Yellow-green E104
Green S Green E142
Brilliant Blue Blue E133
Indigo Carmine Blue E132

Food colourant formats

Your end application will affect the type of colourant you will want to opt for.

  • Solutions: Suited for use with beverages and mixable food items. They offer consistent colouring and make it easy to blend and control intensity.
  • Powders: These are available dry and ground, either pure or mixed with a carrier. They are suitable for products where moisture control is crucial.
  • Lakes: These have been treated to make them oil dispersible but not soluble; great for products requiring a longer shelf life or where moisture and pH stability is key (such as confectionery and baked products).
  • Pastes: These are thick and concentrated glycerin or oil-based colourants. They do not significantly affect the moisture content of the product, making them suitable for products like icing and fondant.

 

Not sure which colourant is suitable for your application? Our experienced team of ingredient experts would be delighted to help.

In our Food & Beverage Division, we have over 25 years’ expertise supplying ingredients for food and drink production — this includes a range of quality natural colourants, synthetic colourants and colouring foodstuffs.

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