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When It Comes to Color, ‘All-Natural’ Limits the Palette

Food labeling can be a bit of a struggle in the United States. Consumer consensus rings fairly clear when it comes to what “all-natural” claims should mean, but that term can be considerably variable and often leaves consumers feeling confused. The upcoming Food Labeling Modernization Act and myriad other government surveys on the term will likely lead to a variety of issues for producers, but there is a more cosmetic problem in store for food companies looking to shift to all-natural foods.

The Wall Street Journal published a story Dec. 1 regarding food scientists and their quest to replicate artificial food coloring from hundreds of combinations of fruits, vegetables and spices. The article first brings up Generals Mills Inc. and its quest to replace the brightly-colored pieces in Trix cereal. Despite the company’s best efforts, it could not find a match for the neon-green and turquoise corn puffs in the rainbow-colored cereal, and decided to remove them from the product altogether.

The company cited consumers tests that noted people don’t recall seeing that color turquoise in any food besides Trix. In essence, what was once a proprietary color that was immediately connected to the Trix brand has become a liability as consumers shift towards purchasing all-natural products. And the changes are not easy. “A lot of consumers think they can just swap this for that, but it isn’t as easy as it sounds,” said David Garfield, head of the consumer products practice at consulting firm AlixPartners. “As soon as you tinker with one thing, that affects another, and you’re trying to keep everyone happy.”

The article also notes that different colors are more difficult to recreate with natural ingredients. Blue and green are among the most challenging as the instability of similar colored fruit juices is exposed when in the presence of heat or different acidity levels. More natural colors, obviously, are easier to replicate, but also come with their own sourcing and supply chain issues.

I also found an interesting piece of information in the article, that goes against the typical consumer’s thoughts. Although most believe “all-natural” automatically means “healthier,” many new natural coloring ingredients raise the calories of a serving when compared to a product made with artificial coloring. Case in point: the new formulation of Trix will have 10 more calories per serving than its predecessor.

What do you think: should food companies be focusing on removing artificial colors in their products?