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Keeping beverage labels clean

Addressing the challenges of using clean label colors

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The clean label trend continues to establish itself in the North American beverage market. It’s a natural consequence of what Innova Marketing calls “Clean Supreme,” the top food and beverage trend in 2017. According to Innova, the trend for clean and clear labeling has become a standard as consumers want to understand the food they are eating in every way. Global consumers want foods that are fresh, natural and minimally processed. According to a recent consumer study by AC Nielsen1, 43% consider foods with all natural ingredients and non-GMOs very important.

We eat with our eyes and the color of our food and drinks has a powerful impact on our purchasing decisions. We use color to determine if food is appealing. As consumers, we have a clear set of expectations about what color a food should be; it helps us understand what we are eating. Since consumers buy food that looks appetizing, color is often the first frontier in the purchasing decision. At the same time, many prefer those colors to be coming from a relatable source like fruit and vegetables. 

Colors are also used to correct natural variations in color and to replace color lost in processing. It’s very important when it comes to beverages. Even with the growing trend toward natural ingredients, consumers still expect their strawberry beverage will look red. If a beverage were formulated using only strawberries to add color, it would fade and brown over time, and ultimately it would not sell. That is why clean label colors are a great option – consumers can have both the red strawberry beverage they expect and ingredients they know and trust.     

Not all natural colors are equally light stable

Natural colors work well in the majority of beverages and can provide bright and vivid shades with generally long shelf life stability. But color pigments that are based on natural sources have inherent limitations such as sensitivity towards acidity, heat and light. In some cases it can be difficult to obtain the exact same intensity or shade as with artificial colors.

The main challenges that arise when using natural colors in the beverage industry are color fading, neck-ringing and shade shifting. Beverages are often sold in transparent or semitransparent packaging, which can be a challenge since some natural pigments are sensitive to light exposure. If light stability is critical, then it is important to select those colors and color formulations which have been proven to be the most light stable. At Chr. Hansen, we help our customers by providing education and tools to reduce these challenges. 

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Some natural pigments are sensitive to light exposure causing color shifting or fading over time.

It is trendy using fruit and vegetable juices as colors, but it can also be challenging 

Consumers want to understand what they are eating and believe food and beverages colored with natural colors or with fruit and vegetable juice are healthier. Because of increased demand, we have launched a range of clean label colors that contain only natural and non-GMO ingredients. They make possible a simple labelling like vegetable juice or carrot juice (for color) or could support a claim like “made with ingredients from natural sources”. Our FRUITMAX® range, a range of minimally processed fruit and vegetable juice with coloring properties, provide a wide range of shades from yellow and orange to red and purple and brown. They satisfy consumer demand for transparency, as they are made of fruits and vegetables that customers know and understand. 

Eight bottles of flavoured watersOur FRUITMAX® range is minimally processed fruit and vegetable juice with coloring properties. The shown colors are made with only natural ingredients and can be blended to create a variety of shades.

If beverage producers prefer their coloring to come from the minimally processed, fruit and vegetable color category, there are shades that are difficult to obtain. For example, it can be difficult to get a transparent yellow color, as the available pigment would be a yellow carrot juice. This juice contains beta carotene, which is an oil soluble pigment. Inherently, carrot juice contains other plant components that keep the naturally occurring beta-carotene pigment in suspension. While these plant components prevent the beta-carotene oil from separating out in a beverage, they also make it look cloudy. It is possible to make a transparent yellow beverage with beta-carotene, but that would require additional emulsifiers and processes – neither of which is classified as a minimally processed juice. 

Blue and green shades are widely used in the sports drink and hydration category. Currently, there is no clean label solution in these shades that work in beverage applications. The natural blue color, spirulina, which is allowed in some food applications in US, is not stable in an acidic beverage, resulting in color fading after a short time.

Another challenge is the high dosage level required to obtain the right shade. Fruit and vegetable juices are not as concentrated as their more purified and concentrated natural color counterpart. The higher dosage can, in some cases, create a distinct flavor in the final product stemming from the original fruit or vegetable the color is made of. 

Natural flavors often interact with natural colors

Flavors are complex systems that often involve various carriers and solvents; thus, flavor systems are not interchangeable in formulations unless they have been evaluated and proven to be stable in real-time shelf life testing. 

First, natural flavors tend to be weaker in flavor strength, and therefore a higher dosage is required to achieve the desired flavor. The addition of more flavor increases the concentration of reactive carriers and solvents. Second, some natural flavors are based on essential oils, which is a nuisance to natural colors. Most reactions to these trifling flavor components are delayed, taking place throughout weeks, even months, depending on the system. 

For example, in beverages, solvents from the flavor can break down color emulsions, resulting in undesirable neck ringing. 

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High shear and interactions with some ingredients like acid, flavors and vitamins can impact emulsion stability negatively and cause neck-ring in beverages.

Formulation technology is important for developing and providing natural colors that are robust and stable for beverage applications. This includes improved emulsification and encapsulation systems. With these new and improved formulation technologies, we can provide colors that are stable in a beverage and also offer an improved cost in use. One of the great innovations that Chr. Hansen has accomplished is our encapsulation technology. Our CAPCOLORS® Technology helps you make more with less. Based on milling and encapsulation, it imitates how pigments are protected in nature.

In nature, plant pigments are stabilized in a matrix of sugars and hydrocolloids in e.g. plant material. When these pigments are extracted, some of the pigments become sensitive to light, oxidation and heat. To re-stabilize the pigments, food ingredients are used to encapsulate them. The milling process increases the color intensity so less pigment is needed to provide the same color, improving cost-in-use. Since this range of colors are not based on emulsion they are more robust towards to ringing and shifting arising from process stress or ingredient interactions like flavors. 

Vitamins and minerals used to fortify beverages can impact the color stability leading to fading and browning.

Fortification – good for the body, not always good for color stability

A growing trend in beverages is fortified drinks with high content of vitamins and minerals. Vitamins and minerals can react with the pigment and either accelerates the color degradation process causing fading or create a complex-binding of pigments and minerals, which may cause precipitation in the final application. Formulators must evaluate in real-time shelf life studies how these ingredients impact color stability. 

For example, vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in high concentrations is beneficial for avoiding oxidation of carotenes; however, it has the opposite effect on anthocyanin as it destabilizes the red pigment leading to fading and browning. 

Other divalent ions minerals like zinc can complex bind with pigments if not added at optimal pH level and create precipitation. Others like calcium or magnesium can also complex bind with anthocyanins and lead to faster fading. The same ions may in high concentrations destabilize emulsions, create cloudiness and accelerate ring apparition. Such complications can be avoided by using optimal mineral forms or by adding them in the right order.

Consumers buy with the eyes and they love to see the actual food or beverage through the packaging

Package shape, material and size all influence how the color shade and the product are perceived by the consumer. For example, a soft drink in a bottle with a small diameter will appear lighter than the same drink in a bottle with a larger diameter. The fact that the color shade might look different depending on the size and shape makes it important that shape of the container or the product is consistent when matching colors.

Same dosage of pink drinks used across three containers
Packaging type, size and form can indirectly impact color perception. The same dosage is used across these three containers.

When most formulators think about package impact on color, they focus on oxidative breakdown caused by exposure to light and oxygen – and rightfully so, as many natural colors are sensitive to either or both. Pigments like carotenoids are sensitive to oxygen, other pigments like turmeric are sensitive toward UV light. Oxidation or light stability is influenced by package composition, packaging materials and storage conditions. Marketing often dictate very thin transparent PET bottles which are more convenient to carry home than a glass bottle. The challenge here can be the permeability of oxygen through the bottle, which increases the risk of pigment oxidation. Using thin bottles is possible, but it would be a smart choice to combine it with packaging material barriers like UV filters or sleeves, which can retard or prevent oxidation and can prolong the shelf life period up to 50%.

With our unique application knowledge and more than 140 years of experience with natural colors, we can guide you through the process and help you get your natural color right the first time.

1 AC Nielsen, 2015. We are what we eat. Healthy eating trends around the world. January 2015