red cabbage with pH strips

3 Things to Keep in Mind When Developing Products with Natural Colors

Color can make or break a food. Would you eat a blue steak? Drink green milk? Or eat brown salad leaves?

Getting the color of your product helps consumers decide whether it’s the right product for them. If you use artificial colors this is often relatively simple to do. Choose your color, find the right dosage, and you’re pretty much set. Things get a lot more complicated though if you want to use natural colors though. They might not be bright enough, change color, or even lose color over time.

Understanding how your natural colors work and when they can and cannot be used is key. Because they can still be used to make a beautiful cake, cookie, sweet, or drink, you just need to know how. Use these three tips to get you started.

1. Control your pH-value

Many natural colors change color or even lose color completely when the surrounding environment changes. Most are especially sensitive to the pH-value of the environment. That is, the acidity, or alkalinity of the surrounding liquid of the color. They might change, or even lose color completely if stored under the incorrect pH-value.

Probably the most well-known example of this is the purple/red/blue color from red cabbage. Red cabbage is red under acidic conditions, purple under more neutral conditions and turns blue at high pH-values. If you’re after one color and not the other, you need to know just exactly at which pH-value you need to store and use your red cabbage color.

Another great example is the bright red color in beetroots. This red color is unstable under alkaline conditions. It will simply break down over time or in a hot place like the oven.

Looking for a real example? We developed a red velvet cake colored with just beetroot juices. Only by adding enough acid to the batter did the cake actually turn out red!

If you’re trying out these new colors, check at which pH-value they should be used. Generally speaking, manufacturers or suppliers will be able to tell you the conditions at which you should use them.

pH doesn’t just impact color

This may sound simple, but keep in mind that pH-value also has a big impact on other processes. For instance, certain proteins may coagulate under acidic conditions. This is especially relevant for dairy products. It’s why you can make cheese by adding acid to milk. But if you’re making a milk-based drink, you might not be able to add a color that needs an acidic environment to shine.

Chemical reactions can also impact the pH-value of your product. In cakes for instance, baking soda will react with acids. If there’s not enough acid, it will all be used up, increasing the pH. If there’s too much, your product will remain slightly acidic. Getting these ratios just right is even more important if your color depends on it as well.

turmeric powders (right: alkalized)
Turmeric powder: left, as is, right, mixed with a little bit of water and baking soda. Note the stark color change.

2. Keep an eye on the time

Most foods only contain a very little bit of coloring. It’s why in many cases, you’d add the color to some water or oil before mixing it in with the rest of the cake batter, dough, or drink. It makes it easier to mix it in homogeneously.

However, many natural colors are not stable when you store them for extended amounts of time dissolved in another liquid. This becomes even more crucial when you’re storing them at warm temperatures. They might break down before you even have a chance to mix them in.

This is quite a change from many artificial colors. Most artificial colors can be stored under quite wide conditions for long periods of time. They’re very stable. As a result, if you’re changing over, you may need to redesign your processes to ensure that you don’t store your natural colors for too long.

For instance, you may need to prepare your natural color solution more often, in smaller batches. Or, you may need to plan your process such that the colors are used within a predetermined time frame.

neutral beet juice with added acids
Beetroot juice loses its color over time when not stored properly. Note, using pH-strips is a simple way to get an idea of the pH-value of your liquids.

3. Red cabbage no. 1 ≠ Red cabbage no. 2

Within the world of natural colors there can be stark differences between a seemingly similar color from supplier 1 and supplier 2. Just how that color has been extracted, processed, and possibly stabilized can have a big influence on how the color behaves in your final product. (Interestingly, the plant-based protein world suffers from the same challenge!)

As such, don’t assume that replacing carrot orange 1 with carrot orange 2 will make the same orange. On the contrary. Whereas one might be bright orange, the other might make a more brownish product. It’s why testing and comparing is crucial. Ideally, you also find a way to measure and test objectively.

Measure and compare

When comparing colors you might be tempted to just pull out the products, bring them into the office and ask your fellow co-workers to compare the products. And whereas this has its place, it shouldn’t be the only way you evaluate your product.

Much as how paint or wall paper may look very different in a showroom or on your computer screen than in your own house, food products do as well. If you look at your candies under fluorescent lighting, they will look different than in the bright sunshine outside. Differences you might not see inside are very obvious outside, and vice versa.

To prevent this from leading you the wrong way, consider using analytical equipment for measuring your color. Nowadays, quite simple, handheld pieces of equipment are available. They’re a great way to add some numbers to your own more subjective observations. Also, they can be invaluable once you start manufacturing these products in your factory. You won’t remember the exact way that red color looked 3 months from now. But, your device does. It should spit out the exact same number, or something changed, allowing you to troubleshoot and fix the problem.

Use these tips to develop great products

Making a brightly colored product with just natural colors can be challenging. The colors simply aren’t that stable. This may result in a failed new product or process.

Luckily, by understanding how natural colors work and how to get them to do what you want them to do you can make beautifully colored products using natural colors.

Need more help to bring this to life? Let me know what it is you’re struggling with and request a discovery call!

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