Popular US foods taking on new shades without artificial dyes

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

Food makers are purging their products of artificial dyes as people increasingly eschew anything in their food they feel might be less than natural.

But replicating the vivid colours Americans expect with ingredients such as 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 colours when the cereal is reformulated this year. The red pieces – which will be coloured with radishes and strawberries – will also look different.

More American companies are doing he same as General Mills and replacing artificial dyes with colours made from fruits, vegetables and spices – but these present more challenges than artificial dyes.

In addition to costing more, colours from fruits and vegetables can be sensitive to heat and acidity. And since they are 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 a large scale.

Still, companies want to court people such as Heather Thalwitzer, a 31-year-old homemaker in Melbourne, Florida. Mrs Thalwitzer avoids artificial colouring because she wants her six-year-old son to eat quality food and she said red dye had been linked to “mania”. She has tried alternatives such as naturally coloured sprinkles from Whole Foods, which her husband thinks taste a bit like fish. But she can get along without such products.

There are times when Mrs 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.”

Part of the challenge with colours from natural sources is that the range of hues has been limited. Blues, for instance, were not widely available in the US until 2013. That’s when the country’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a petition by confectioner Mars to use spirulina extract as colouring in chewing gum and sweets.

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

“That was a big thing for us,” said Stefan Hake, chief executive of the US division of natural colour maker GNT.

At the company’s office in Tarrytown, New York state, Mr Hake demonstrated how to get blue from spirulina by pouring a liquefied version of it through a coffee filter to isolate the colour components. The approval of spirulina extract also opened up the world of greens, which can be made by mixing blue and yellow.

Getting approval for a new colour source for foods 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 another colour maker, Sensient Technologies.

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

Sensient has developed a “deodorisingprocess” to remove flavours from ingredients. That allowed it to introduce an orange for beverages made from paprika. Mr Morris declined to go into detail about the company’s process. But since the ingredient is not “fundamentally changing the form”, he said the ingredients fall within FDA guidelines on permissible colour sources.

Sensient said three quarters of its new projects for clients in the US involve natural colours. Globally, its sales of colours – natural and synthetic – comes to about $300 million.

For food producers, synthetic colours have the advantage of being established in the marketplace – and in consumers’ minds. There are seven synthetic colours approved for broad use in US foods. These are made by synthesising raw materials from petroleum, according to the FDA, and can be mixed to create a wide range of colours.

Synthetic colours still dominate in the US, but some cite a study linking them to hyperactivity in children in calling for them to be phased out. Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, says artificial colours can be used in deceptive ways.

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

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

Of course, natural colours 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 on its banana peppers, but will maintain their bright yellow look with turmeric.

Some say a switch to natural colour sources isn’t yet possible because it might turn off customers.

“We have to deliver bold colours and flavours, 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&Ms and Skittles, said it isn’t yet using the spirulina extract it petitioned to have approved.

Not everyone thinks getting rid of artificial colours hinges on finding exact matches with natural alternatives. The Panera restaurant chain is betting people won’t mind that its mozzarella cheese might have a yellowish hue after the removal of titanium dioxide. For cakes and biscuits with sweet-coated chocolates, the natural colours 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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