Food Science Trends: Natural Colors and Flavors

Consumers are looking for transparency regarding the things that they eat, including the essences that provide flavors and texture, aroma and color. They want to know that what they are eating is safe, healthy, and recognizable… “natural”. But where do we draw the line between synthetic and natural? It’s not so simple to define.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes many natural components for flavor, and they can come from an array of sources. But a natural source might not mean the fruit, vegetable, or leaf like you’d think. It can come from the shell of an insect or even a beaver’s excretory glands! To be labeled as a natural flavor, there is only one requirement. It must only act as flavoring substance, not intended to provide any nutritional benefit. As for food colors, synthetic ones must be batch certified by the FDA. Food colors which are extracted from beets, turmeric, paprika, and saffron are exempt from this certification and can be labeled as ‘natural.’

Sometimes, some colorants may appear to be quote-on-quote ‘natural,’ but they require many solvents and chemicals in their production. Color ingredients made from fruits, vegetables, and plants that are processed physically with water – ‘coloring foods’— are probably most true to the idea that a consumer would have in mind for a ‘natural’ color.

It makes intuitive sense that we would want our food products being dyed with such foods. Aside from adding beautiful vibrant hues, they are associated with many phyto-nutrients that work wonders in the body. For example, plant based colors can be rich in anthocyanins, beta-carotene, chlorophyll, or curcumin.

But the drawbacks to using some natural products to color foods?

  • The colors oxidize. Man made food dyes are resistant to fading.
  • Natural colors can be less heat stable. Though red can be obtained from beets, they often turn to a ruddy brown when exposed to temperatures above 150 ºF.
  • Natural colors can be less pH stable. Reds can also be obtained from the anthocyanins found in red cabbage extract or grape skin extract. However, they develop best at an acidic pH and are very sensitive to a rising pH.
  • Some natural colors can cause consumer controversy. For example, while carmine extract is heat, pH, and light stable, it also comes from insects and is therefore not kosher or vegan. It can also cause allergies in some consumers.

Even with all of these challenges, it’s promising to note that Food Scientists are hard at work developing methods to stabilize natural colors through proprietary technologies. They’ve currently come out with stable natural blues, greens, oranges, purples, and reds that may soon be found in cereals on your supermarket shelf! Maybe some day we’ll have Boo-Berry bowls colored by beets and red grape skins, or shamrock marshmallows dyed with chlorophyll!

In the meantime, we can “settle” for some lovely recipes today that feature the crayons of the earth: fruits and vegetables! I’ve rounded up a few unique ones to try, and expect a few very soon from me!

Grilled Chinese Char Siu Chicken - this marinade is phenomenal! No artificial colors in this recipe - brilliant red beet powder stands in for red food coloring

Grilled Chinese Char Siu Chicken (with beets for color!)

If you have any great recipes using natural food colors, post in the comments! 🙂

Thank you to WholeFoodsMagazine and Sensient Food Colors for some of the information in this article.


  1. Cora said:

    Hmm. So interesting. Knowing full well the hidden tricks with the FDA and food labeling, I’m always so wary when I see “natural flavoring” etc and wonder how “natural” it actually is. “To be labeled as a natural flavor, there is only one requirement. It must only act as flavoring substance, not intended to provide any nutritional benefit.”…. this just seems weird to me. Does this mean it can in fact be anything? As long as it does not have nutritional value? But this is also promising that they are working to use completely natural sources. Off to check out that beet fudge recipe.. mmmm.


    • Yup. This means that they can write off ingredients like MSG as natural flavoring. I mean, a little bit of things like that in our food won’t kill us but wouldn’t it be nice if food companies didn’t have to resort to such things 😦 But we can remain hopeful that someday all those yucky additives can be replaced with equally as effective and healthier ingredients!


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