Are natural colors healthy? Do natural colors impart nutritional value? Can we make functional claims when we use natural colors in our product? We get these types of questions often, especially with the increase in the “functional foods” market segment. In this article we’ll provide some clarity around this topic.

Do natural colors have nutritional value?

The short answer is no – most natural colors do not provide nutritional value to an end product. This is because the majority of natural colors used in food production are isolated pigments, meaning the color has been selectively extracted from the raw material in order to create extremely concentrated colors for the sole purpose of coloring food and beverage applications.

Macro and Micronutrients

But you used vitamin C in the natural color formulation. Doesn’t that provide a health benefit? The answer is still no. In order to make colors suitable for food or beverage applications they are often formulated with food additives and other ingredients.

Vitamins like vitamin C can be used to help stabilize some natural colors like carotenoids, and minerals like calcium or sodium can be used to stabilize others, providing them minor amounts of micronutrients. But the vitamin or mineral content is typically very low, and when considering the dosage range – usually around 0.1 – 1.0% in the final product – that means that the contribution of these nutrients to the finished product would be negligible.

Another example is when using an emulsifier to make an oil soluble color suitable for water-based applications, or a carrier like maltodextrin to make a powder color. In these cases, natural colors may contain macronutrients like carbohydrates, lipids, or proteins, with negligible contribution to the end product nutritional label.

Beyond Nutrition

But it’s also important to understand why consumers might think that natural colors have nutritional value or health benefits.

Pigments in their original environment in a raw material – like beets, berries, or turmeric root – have biological functions that came about as evolutionary advantages that are sometimes translated to functional properties. Here we’ll dive into a few of the most common ones, if only for the purpose of awing ourselves on the marvels of the interaction of living organisms through chemistry.

Cross section of purple corn showing anthocyanin color as an example of a pigment that may have nutritional value

Anthocyanins – these wonderful tiny molecules are responsible for the colors of most berries and red, blue, and violet flowers. Some studies* suggest they may have protective effects by neutralizing free radicals, controlling inflammation and positively affecting the cardiovascular, endocrine and microcirculatory systems, besides modulating the gut microbiota.

Beet roots – are rich in betalains (betacyanins and betaxanthis) and studies show* they exhibit antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. Some athletes use beet root extracts as food supplements with hopes to improve physical performance, muscle efficiency and reduce exercise caused fatigue

Annatto as an example of a carotenoid

Carotenoids – Another group of powerful antioxidants that provide warm yellows, oranges, and reds. They are auxiliary pigments for the photosynthesis process and studies show* they may contribute to the protection of tissues – of both the plants and microorganisms that synthesize them as well as the animals that consume them.

Chlorophyll – here we’ll mention a feature not very well known, but probably intuitive, from chlorophyll derivatives. Due to their affinity for other organic molecules, studies suggest* they can be used as internal deodorant, helping to neutralize body odors in colostomy patients and also by those that suffer trimethylaminuria. And we say intuitive, because who has not resorted to granny’s advice of chewing celery, parsley, or cilantro to control breath and BO?

close up of turmeric rhizome

Curcumin – A bright and neon-like yellow pigment. This flavonoid is extracted from turmeric root, which is widely used in It has been studied* for its anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties and is one of the examples of bioactive substances that have successfully jumped from the table to the nutraceutical field.

To sum it up

Although there is no scientific evidence showing that natural colors have nutritional value as food additives with a direct correlation to health benefits, natural colors are made from natural sources that are well known by consumers. This confers a ‘wellness halo’ to foods and drinks that are naturally colored that may lead consumers to choose products colored with natural sources over other options.

*Check out the studies below for additional reading on these pigments.

Blesso, C. N. (2019). Dietary Anthocyanins and Human Health. Nutrients11(9), 2107.

Espinosa-Moncada, J., Marín-Echeverri, C., Galvis-Pérez, Y., Ciro-Gómez, G., Aristizábal, J., Blesso, C., Fernandez, M., & Barona-Acevedo, J. (2018). Evaluation of Agraz Consumption on Adipocytokines, Inflammation, and Oxidative Stress Markers in Women with Metabolic Syndrome. Nutrients10(11), 1639.

Hair, R., Sakaki, J. R., & Chun, O. K. (2021). Anthocyanins, Microbiome and Health Benefits in Aging. Molecules26(3), 537.

Kilua, A., Nomata, R., Nagata, R., Fukuma, N., Shimada, K., Han, K. H., & Fukushima, M. (2019). Purple Sweet Potato Polyphenols Differentially Influence the Microbial Composition Depending on the Fermentability of Dietary Fiber in a Mixed Culture of Swine Fecal Bacteria. Nutrients11(7), 1495.

Luna-Vital, D. A., & Gonzalez De Mejia, E. (2018). Anthocyanins from purple corn activate free fatty acid-receptor 1 and glucokinase enhancing in vitro insulin secretion and hepatic glucose uptake. PLOS ONE13(7), e0200449.

Mozos, I., Flangea, C., Vlad, D. C., Gug, C., Mozos, C., Stoian, D., Luca, C. T., Horbańczuk, J. O., Horbańczuk, O. K., & Atanasov, A. G. (2021). Effects of Anthocyanins on Vascular Health. Biomolecules11(6), 811.

Pei, R., Liu, J., Martin, D. A., Valdez, J. C., Jeffety, J., Barrett-Wilt, G. A., Liu, Z., & Bolling, B. W. (2019). Aronia Berry Supplementation Mitigates Inflammation in T Cell Transfer-Induced Colitis by Decreasing Oxidative Stress. Nutrients11(6), 1316.

Abedimanesh, N., Asghari, S., Mohammadnejad, K., Daneshvar, Z., Rahmani, S., Shokoohi, S., Farzaneh, A. H., Hosseini, S. H., Jafari Anarkooli, I., Noubarani, M., Andalib, S., Eskandari, M. R., & Motlagh, B. (2021). The anti-diabetic effects of betanin in streptozotocin-induced diabetic rats through modulating AMPK/SIRT1/NF-κB signaling pathway. Nutrition & Metabolism18(1).

Belhadj Slimen, I., Najar, T., & Abderrabba, M. (2017). Chemical and Antioxidant Properties of Betalains. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry65(4), 675–689.

Chen, L., Zhu, Y., Hu, Z., Wu, S., & Jin, C. (2021). Beetroot as a functional food with huge health benefits: Antioxidant, antitumor, physical function, and chronic metabolomics activity. Food Science & Nutrition9(11), 6406–6420.

Lechner, J. F., & Stoner, G. D. (2019). Red Beetroot and Betalains as Cancer Chemopreventative Agents. Molecules24(8), 1602.

Raish, M., Ahmad, A., Ansari, M. A., Alkharfy, K. M., Ahad, A., Khan, A., Ali, N., Ganaie, M. A., & Hamidaddin, M. A. A. (2019). Beetroot juice alleviates isoproterenol-induced myocardial damage by reducing oxidative stress, inflammation, and apoptosis in rats. 3 Biotech(4).

Barros, M. P., Rodrigo, M. J., & Zacarias, L. (2018). Dietary Carotenoid Roles in Redox Homeostasis and Human Health. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry66(23), 5733–5740.

Coronel, J., Pinos, I., & Amengual, J. (2019). β-carotene in Obesity Research: Technical Considerations and Current Status of the Field. Nutrients11(4), 842.

Frank, H. A., & Brudvig, G. W. (2004). Redox Functions of Carotenoids in Photosynthesis. Biochemistry43(27), 8607–8615.

Kim, J. H., Lee, J., Choi, I. J., Kim, Y. I., Kwon, O., Kim, H., & Kim, J. (2018). Dietary Carotenoids Intake and the Risk of Gastric Cancer: A Case—Control Study in Korea. Nutrients10(8), 1031.

Lucas, R., Mihály, J., Lowe, G., Graham, D., Szklenar, M., Szegedi, A., Töröcsik, D., & Rühl, R. (2018). Reduced Carotenoid and Retinoid Concentrations and Altered Lycopene Isomer Ratio in Plasma of Atopic Dermatitis Patients. Nutrients10(10), 1390.

Lawler, T., Liu, Y., Christensen, K., Vajaranant, T. S., & Mares, J. (2019). Dietary Antioxidants, Macular Pigment, and Glaucomatous Neurodegeneration: A Review of the Evidence. Nutrients11(5), 1002.

Chaturvedi,D.  Singh,K., Singh, V.K. (2019) Therapeutic and pharmacological aspects of photodynamic product chlorophyllin. Eur. J. Biol. Res. 9(2), 64-76.

Devi, D. M., & Banu, N. (2017). Anti-Proliferative activity of Chlorophyllin from Phyllanthus Emblica L. against MCF-7 and Vero Cell line. Research Journal of Pharmacy and Technology10(2), 516.

Liu, Z., Xia, S., Wang, X., Lan, Q., Li, P., Xu, W., Wang, Q., Lu, L., & Jiang, S. (2020). Sodium Copper Chlorophyllin Is Highly Effective against Enterovirus (EV) A71 Infection by Blocking Its Entry into the Host Cell. ACS Infectious Diseases6(5), 882–890.

Rani, G. R., & Banu, N. (2017). Antibacterial activity of Sodium Copper Chlorophyllin (SCC) from Leucas aspera L. Research Journal of Pharmacy and Technology10(3), 792.

Suparmi, S., Fasitasari, M., Martosupono, M., & Mangimbulude, J. C. (2016). Comparisons of Curative Effects of Chlorophyll from Sauropus androgynus(L) Merr Leaf Extract and Cu-Chlorophyllin on Sodium Nitrate-Induced Oxidative Stress in Rats. Journal of Toxicology2016, 1–7.

Fleenor, B. S., Carlini, N. A., & Campbell, M. S. (2019). Curcumin and arterial function in health and disease. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care22(6), 459–464.

Giordano, & Tommonaro. (2019). Curcumin and Cancer. Nutrients11(10), 2376.

Kim, Y., & Clifton, P. (2018). Curcumin, Cardiometabolic Health and Dementia. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health15(10), 2093.

Varì, R., Scazzocchio, B., Silenzi, A., Giovannini, C., & Masella, R. (2021). Obesity-Associated Inflammation: Does Curcumin Exert a Beneficial Role? Nutrients13(3), 1021.

Zhu, T., Chen, Z., Chen, G., Wang, D., Tang, S., Deng, H., Wang, J., Li, S., Lan, J., Tong, J., Li, H., Deng, X., Zhang, W., Sun, J., Tu, Y., Luo, W., & Li, C. (2019). Curcumin Attenuates Asthmatic Airway Inflammation and Mucus Hypersecretion Involving a PPARγ-Dependent NF-κB Signaling Pathway In Vivo and In Vitro. Mediators of Inflammation2019, 1–15.

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