Hitting the sweet spot in confectionery

Natural colours are a safe and healthy way for manufacturers to give their sweet treats the visual pop they need.

By Carel Soo, regional marketing manager, Oterra

Could you imagine yourself, or anyone around you being tempted to eat grey chocolate bars or other candy? The answer is probably not, and with good reason – not only would it be impossible to guess the flavour, but they also would not catch your attention.

Walking down the confectionery aisle in supermarkets, we are bombarded by the myriad of bright, vibrant colours, all of which are purposely selected to attract consumers. For confectionery, one of the biggest factors contributing to its success is colour.

Over the past 10 years, media exposure, coupled with the trend towards naturality, has led to parents becoming increasingly aware of the impact of artificial colours on children’s behaviour.  Even though the use of natural colours in confectionery products is on an upward trend, driven mainly by Japan, South Korea and Australia, artificial colours are still widely used in new product launches within South East Asia and China. 

Their use in these markets is mainly due to less stringent food regulations compared to the EU around the use of artificial colours, as well as a lack of consumers’ awareness. However, a recent consumer survey conducted by FMCG Gurus in Q4 2020 found an average of 55% of Thai consumers find a “no artificial colour” claim appealing, and 60% were willing to pay a premium price for confectionery products made without artificial colours. Meanwhile in China, an average of 67% of Chinese consumers found a ‘natural’ claim appealing, and 60% were willing to pay a premium price for confectionery products with such a claim.

With globalisation and the Asia-Pacific region becoming a major food manufacturing hub, it has become increasingly important for confectionery manufacturers to pay more attention to their choice of ingredients to address changing consumers’ needs and concerns.

The ‘Southampton Six’ colours

Synthetic food dyes first came under scrutiny when a study, done by the University of Southampton, concluded that artificial colours or a sodium benzoate preservative (or both) in a diet resulted in increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children.

These results, published in 2007, led to the EU passing legislation in 2010, making it mandatory for food and drinks to carry a warning label if they contained any of the following six synthetic dyes: tartrazine (E102), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), sunset yellow (E110), ponceau 4R (E124) and allura red (E129). The on-pack warning statement could look like this: “Tartrazine: may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”.  

Today, in countries within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), all food containing the Southampton six artificial colours must also carry a similar on-pack warning statement.

Emergence of new studies around artificial colours

A report released by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) also found that consumption of synthetic food dyes can result in hyperactivity and other neurobehavioral problems in some children and that children vary in their sensitivity to synthetic food dyes1. The report is the result of a two-year, multifaceted evaluation of seven synthetic food dyes that are the most consumed in the US. It has yet to be determined if the results of the report will lead to any further regulation by the State of California.

Spotlight on titanium dioxide

Titanium dioxide or E171 is used as food colouring serving a technological function to make food more visually appealing. In this case, titanium dioxide provides whiteness and opacity to products.  In confectionery, it is most often used in panned confectionery, chewing gums and hard candies as a base colour so that their final colour appears smooth, bright, and vibrant. 

After conducting a review of all the relevant available scientific evidence, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that a concern for the genotoxicity of TiO2 particles cannot be ruled out2. Genotoxicity refers to the ability of a chemical substance to damage DNA, the genetic material of cells. As genotoxicity may lead to carcinogenic effects, it is essential to assess the potential genotoxic effect of a substance to conclude on its safety.

Based on this concern, EFSA’s experts no longer consider titanium dioxide safe when used as a food additive. As a result, it has been banned within the EU since the end of January 2022, with manufacturers given six months to enforce this new ruling3. It is expected that the ruling will lead to increased interest and a rush to replace this additive among confectionery manufacturers around the world.

Myths and facts

“With our focus on research and development, we have developed new technologies and formulations with improved stability and deliver colours that comes in bright and vibrant shades.  They are also standardised for colour ensuring consistency across batches. Of course, it is critical to have a strong understanding of the basic rules on how to work with natural colours,” said Lotte Jeppesen, global industry business manager from Oterra.

With scientific studies highlighting the possible effects of artificial colours, why are all manufacturers not making the move towards natural colours? This might be related to unfounded myths surrounding the use of natural colours, which include stability issues, lack of vibrancy and shades variety, batch-to-batch variations, and the perception that they may be hard to work with. 

However, with continuous innovation within the natural colours industry, these misconceptions no longer hold true.     

Natural alternatives

There is a good match for artificial colours in most confectionery products.  For yellow and orange shades, there are, for example, turmeric and annatto. For pink and red, red beets, black carrots, and sweet potatoes serve as sources, while blue can be derived from spirulina.

According to Jude Wong, Oterra’s regional application centre manager, some of the key considerations when choosing the right colours for confectionery products include factors like pH levels, processing conditions and packaging. 

“Pigments like chlorophyll and annatto can be sensitive to low pH and will precipitate if the colour formulation is not stabilised. That can be the case for low pH applications, such as gummies and hard candy. As such, it is important to select natural colour formulations that are stable when used in such low pH conditions,” said Wong.

When it comes to processing, natural colours can be influenced by heat, shear, pressure and exposure to oxygen. Almost all confectionery products are heated during processing. 

“In hard candy, for example, the colour is added at extremely high temperatures, which may affect the performance of some colour pigments. In such instances, it is important to know which colour formulation to use and when to add the colour during the manufacturing process to ensure the pigment won’t be affected. Taking spirulina as an example, we have the right formulations that are suited for hard candy application and the expertise and knowledge on when and how to apply the colour in the making process,” explained Wong.

Lastly, the choice of packaging material is important as not all colours are equally stable when exposed to light. 

“Turmeric, for example, is very light sensitive and fades quickly when exposed to it. However, our CapColor technologies help to keep turmeric more stable with encapsulation,” said Wong.

Making candy stand out naturally

With the ongoing pandemic and growing plant-based trend, the demand for natural ingredients and transparency have accelerated over the last two years. Coupled with the constant changes of the artificial regulatory landscape and the evolving regulatory landscape for naturally sourced colours, the pressure to move towards natural colours is imminent. As constant innovation is a must in today’s world, natural colours can be the differentiator manufacturers need to hit the sweet spot and take their candy to the next level while appealing to consumers everywhere.

* References are available on request

This article was first published in the April/May issue of Food & Beverage Asia.