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.
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.
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
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?
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. Nutrients, 11(9), 2107. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11092107
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. Nutrients, 10(11), 1639. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10111639
Hair, R., Sakaki, J. R., & Chun, O. K. (2021). Anthocyanins, Microbiome and Health Benefits in Aging. Molecules, 26(3), 537. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules26030537
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. Nutrients, 11(7), 1495. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11071495
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 ONE, 13(7), e0200449. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0200449
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Belhadj Slimen, I., Najar, T., & Abderrabba, M. (2017). Chemical and Antioxidant Properties of Betalains. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 65(4), 675–689. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jafc.6b04208
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