Natural Colours in Food

The use of colours as food additives has been done for a long time as it enhances the visual appeal and in turn the taste. Several studies have confirmed the fact the we "see" the taste before we taste the "taste". The visual appearance of the food and beverage alters the taste we perceive when we taste it.

Artificial colouring was commonly used in food as it was relatively inexpensive, water-soluble and thermally as well as pH stable. However, ever since a study was published by the University of Southampton on 6 colours, 

  • tartrazine (E102)
  • quinoline yellow (E104)
  • sunset yellow (E110)
  • carmoisine (E122)
  • ponceau 4R (E124)
  • Allura red (E129)

Collectively known as the Southampton 6. 

And the adverse effect they have on children, including hyperactivity. Parents, who know this have been actively moving away from these products. In some countries it is necessary to call it out on the front of  pack - "this product contains artificial colors" With growing knowledge of these effects, the world is moving towards natural food colours. 

As more consumers crave healthy food, without artificial additives, the need for natural colours has grown exponentially. From icecream to bakery products natural colours are changing the industry globally for the better.

As the colours are natural they are better accepted overseas where there can be restrictions on the use of artificial colours in food products in their permitted list of ingredients . For eg. Countries like Norway have removed all kinds of food dyes( artificial colour) from their permit list. More on European regulation can be read here.

Natural colours are produced by extracting the colours from natural sources. For example red from red bell peppers, 

The carefully selected sources ensure that the colours are rich and vibrant while ensuring residual flavour, odour etc are as low as possible. 

Using a variety of extraction techniques such as supercritical CO2 extraction and membrane operations, enzyme and microorganism extraction, microwave, traditional clean solvent methods, natural food colours are produced. 

Natural colours used in food and drinks are

E160b- Annatto

The Annatto pigment gives a colour shade ranging from yellow to orange. This pigment is extracted from the seed coating of the tropical tree of Bixa Orellana. The colour of the pigment is due to the carotenoid compound found in the seeds coating. These seeds are widely produced in Central and South America. They are also produced in East Africa, Ivory Coast, Dominican Republic and India.

The Annatto seeds were used in Latin America for a long time as a condiment in Brazil and herbal medicine due to their antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. 

Annatto colour has been used to impart colour to food products like Confectionary, Snacks, Bakery, Beverages, oil-based products such as cheese, butter, margarine, fats etc. 

E163- Anthocyanin

Anthocyanin pigment reveals various shades depending on the pH hues ranging from blue, violet, purple and red. The word anthocyanin has been derived from two Greek words Anthos meaning flower and kyanos meaning blue. This colour is fruit-based like grape skin extract as well as vegetable-based from black carrot and red cabbage.

The difference between colour based on fruit and vegetable is that fruit-based sources are less stable during a change in pH compared to the vegetable-based product. Such as when colour extracted from grape skin is added to milk it will quickly turn grey forming a grey precipitate whereas, vegetable-based anthocyanin when added to milk will impart a stable purple colour to the milk. 

Grape Skin Extract: These are water-soluble colour with outstanding light stability widely applicable in beverages, frozen drinks, candies and imitation wine.

Purple corn: Mainly cultivated in Peru giving rich shades of purple is used in beverages, jellies and candies.

Black Carrot: Cultivated in the middle east is commonly used in the manufacture of beverages, yoghurts, confectionaries, jellies and ice cream.

E162- Betanin

The Betanin colour pigment is extracted from the red beetroot. Beetroot has been commonly used in houses for salad purposes. The red pigment is obtained via a process similar to that of fruit juice extraction. The beetroot juice is extracted by pressing and diffusion, filtered, centrifuged, pasteurised and concentrated by vacuum and ultrafiltration.

Beetroot juice has a berry red colour with a hint of blue colour in it but the blue tinge fades away with time giving a bright red colour. The pigment is not pH-dependent and has good stability for light.

It is commonly used as a food colour in ice cream, milk drinks, dairy products, sorbets, icing, decorations, confectionaries and yoghurts.

E100- Curcumin

A bright yellow colour is obtained from curcumin which is extracted by the process of solvent extraction from turmeric. It is a spice widely used in India. This pigment obtained is an extremely heat stable product but is susceptible to exposure to light. 

The yellow hue pigment doesn’t only impart colour but also has various medicinal and therapeutic properties. It is widely used in confectionery, bakery, coatings, seasoning, sauces, desserts, yellow fats, ice cream, sorbets, condiments, dairy products, dietary supplements, fillings etc.

E161b- Lutein

The Orangish yellow colour is extracted from the petals of the flower of Marigold. Lutein has many benefits for human health as well like preservation of eye health, prevention of degenerative conditions and age-related muscular degeneration making it have various pharmaceutical applications.

The marigold flower is grown in the Mediterranean region in great quantities. When added in low concentration it gives a yellow colour to the food product and orange colour in high concentration. This pigment is used to give colours to food such as drinks, dairy products, beverages, ice cream etc.

E141- Chlorophyllin

Chlorophyllin is the pigment derived from the chlorophyll in plants. The world chlorophyll is derived from the Greek word chloros meaning green and phylon meaning leaf. 

This green food colour is derived from Medicago sativa, Urtica dioica, Grasses and Algae which is easily soluble in water. The green colour is further enhanced by the addition of copper making the overall product stable over a varied range of light and temperature.

Chlorophyllin can be directly added to foods like Drinks, Ice cream, Candy, Cheese, sauce pasta, pickles, lollipops and popsicles.


Phycobilins colour is extracted from naturally occurring freshwater algae called Spirulina. This a food colour which ranges its colour range from green to blue. A nice hue of blue can be obtained from this colour replacing the artificial and harmful blue used in the market. 

It is vastly used in candies, chewing gums, Confectionary, Yogurt, Ice cream, Gelatin, Puddings, Desserts etc.

Getting Natural Colours to Work

Consumers want natural healthier products. The products who deliver on this are and companies who take the steps now will be the ones who will see a bright future. Natural colours are essential ingredients that provide two functionalities they help meet the consumer needs for guilt-free consumption while ensuring superior visual appeal. Thus, they are a new class of ingredients the deliver on both visual as well as the psychological benefits the consumers desire and today expect. Reformulating with natural colours is the only way brands that think beyond the next quarters can secure a permanent position in the minds of consumers.

External Resources

Food  Safety and Standards Authority of India -  FSSAI

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