International expert says Australia falling behind on global trend towards ‘natural’ colours

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 11th September 2013

One of the leading authorities on ‘natural’ food colours in the Asia Pacific region has urged Australian food manufacturers, marketers and media to show “greater leadership” in converting to ‘natural’ colours.

Speaking at a business networking breakfast held in Melbourne on 5 September 2013, Ji Hoong Too Business Development Director for global supplier of food ingredients Chr. Hansen highlighted the growth in conversion to ‘natural’ colours seen in developing markets, and said that Australia “continues to fall behind many countries around the world”. According to Ms Hoong Too, Brazil, Russia, India and China, which are classified as developing markets, are all seeing a growth in use of ‘natural’ colours.

“The implementation of warning labels on foods containing certain artificial colours in the European Union (EU) and the UK has resulted in many manufacturers converting to natural colours,” Ms Hoong Too said. “In Australia and New Zealand, no warning labels are required, and as such the conversion away from artificial colours has progressed at a slower rate,” she said.

Supermarket group ALDI was the first supermarket chain in Australia to banish artificial colourings from its entire range of products. Ms Hoong Too said Coles had also taken a “greater stance” on the issue and that “pressure is now building on Woolworths”.

According to Ms Hoong Too, some Australian favourite products such as Smarties, Paddle Pops, Fanta and Solo are already using ‘natural’ colours in the manufacturing process, however many iconic Australian brands still continue to use artificial colours.

Ms Hoong Too addressed over 80 members of the food manufacturing industry at a breakfast held at Eureka Tower in Melbourne. Leading nutritionist Dr Joanna McMillan also provided a snapshot of drivers and trends in food and dessert.

“Centuries old” natural colours making  a comeback in US

Meanwhile, in the US natural colours used centuries ago are making a resurgence in response to consumer preferences, manufacturers’ needs and “the promise that these antioxidant-rich substances may have health benefits”, according to research presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society on Sunday 8 September 2013.

“The natural colours industry for foods and beverages is gaining in value as US and international companies move towards sustainable and affordable crop alternatives to synthetic red colours and red colours derived from insects,” said Stephen T. Talcott, PhD, Texas A & M University, who spoke at the session. “In addition to adding eye appeal to foods and beverages, natural colourings add natural plant-based antioxidant compounds that may have a beneficial effect on health,” he said.

According to Mr Talcott, one major change in the sector is the appearance of root crops like black carrots and purple sweet potatoes (PSPs), which are grown specifically for the natural colours industry. These crops have become primary agricultural products, compared to fruits such as grapes, which are grown for other purposes and used as secondary or byproduct-based colours.

A range of colours – from light pink to rose, red and deep purple – can be obtained through use of pigments in PSPs, Mr Talcott told the meeting. Available commercially in the US since 2006, but still hard to find in stores, PSPs have the same anthocycanin pigments found in black cheeries.

PSP anthocyanins have proven to be among the best for food and beverage colouring, Mr Talcott said, citing fruit drinks, vitamin waters, ice cream and yoghurt. They are stable and do not break down easily, have superior colouring properties and have a relatively neutral taste. The pigments, however, are very difficult to extract.

According to Mr Talcott, new processes have been developed to extract larger amounts of pigment from PSPs. Byproducts of the process include starch and fibre, which could be used as animal feed, in various food applications or as a raw material for biofuel production. Alternatively, Mr Talcott said the byproducts could simply be composted and used as a soil conditioner for producing more PSPs or other crops.

Such processes could encourage development of a domestic natural food colouring industry, with agriculture spreads devoted specifically to growing foods for use in making food and beverage colouring. Currently, the US imports much of the natural food colouring it uses commercially. The small amounts of PSPs grown in the US go mainly to sales of fresh potatoes for the table.

PSP anthocyanins also have advantages over traditional synthetic red food colourings and the “carmine” reds extracted from cochineal insects because of sustainability issues and ease of production. Cochineal insects feed on a certain type of cactus native to South America and Mexico. It takes about 2,500 bugs to product one ounce of cochineal extract, used in ice creams, yoghurts, lollies, beverages and other foods.

‘Natural’ colours have overtaken artificial colours globally

Australian Food News reported in March 2013 that global sales of ‘natural’ colours had overtaken artificial colours for the first time, with global research organisations Mintel and Leatherhead Food Research predicting the trend towards ‘natural’ would continue.

The research from Mintel and Leatherhead Food Research also found that the use of natural colours in new launches of food and drinkn outweighed the use of artificial and synthetic colours on a global basis by 2 to 1. Europe in particular had shown a strong migration towards use of more natural colours, using them in 85 per cent of new products launched in Europe between 2009 and 2011.

Purple sweet potatoes one potential source of natural colourings / Image credit: