Beetroot, saffron and spinach are in high demand with consumers seeking to avoid the use of artificial colorants in their Christmas cakes and biscuits.
Christmas bakers in need of a touch of green for their seasonal biscuits, muffins and decorations can use tiny amounts of pureed spinach to color the icing.
However, using foods with coloring properties – known as coloring foods – to color icing is a method popular with more than private households; the food industry, too, is happy to eschew lists of additional E numbers from artificial colorants among the ingredients on its food labels, according to TÜV SÜD’s food experts.
There are various reasons for using colorants in food production.
On the one hand, attractive colors enhance the visual appeal of food products, and colorants can intensify the natural colors of a product.
On the other hand, processing and preservation may destroy some of the natural colorants in the original product.
Take strawberry compote, for example.
After cooking, strawberries no longer have the vibrant red of fresh strawberries but change their color to a brownish pink.
Coloring foods can also be used to help restore the original appearance of these food products.
“It is a matter for manufacturers to decide whether to use colorants – of natural or chemical-synthetic origin – or make use of the increasingly popular coloring foods,” explains food expert Dr Andreas Daxenberger.
Coloring foods do not require separate health tests or regulatory approval.
And while natural and synthetic colorants are subject to certain quantitative limits or restrictions of use, there are no restrictions for coloring foods.
As they remain food products throughout processing, they do not require approval and their consumption is safe at all times.
Coloring foods are used mostly in the form of extracts and concentrates from fruit, vegetables and edible plants.
The coloring pigments that give food products an intensive color are extracted from vegetables, root vegetables and aromatic plants by means of physical methods including grinding, pressing or filtration.
However, based on the legal regulations there may be no selective extraction of pigments.
If the concentration of the pigments exceeds the legal limit, the extract is classified as a food additive subject to authorization which means it must also be included on the food label.
Well-known examples of natural sources used as coloring foods include elderberry, red cabbage, purple carrots, spinach, hibiscus, tomato and red radish.
These fruits and vegetables offer intensive natural colors.
The color range achieved with these coloring foods extends from yellow, orange, red and purple to green and brown.
Blue and green pigment concentrates can be extracted from micro-algae.
Caramelized sugar is also used as a coloring food.
Generally, coloring foods are used to color products such as beverages, sweets and desserts, fruit preparations and dairy products.
Carotenoids extracted from sources such as algae or red peppers provide an orange color.
They are used in desserts, ice cream, fruit preparations and beverages.
By contrast, the curcumin in turmeric, which produces a yellow color, is mostly used in dairy products, savory snacks and sweets.
“Nowadays natural sources for coloring foods have been found for almost all color hues,” explains Daxenberger.
“It is even possible to produce an intense blue by using extracts of a specific type of algae.”
Given this, coloring foods replace additives, which otherwise would have to be included in the list of ingredients on food labels in the form of E numbers.
Spinach powder replaces chlorophylls (E 140), concentrated beetroot juice replaces Beetroot Red or betanin (E 162) and red pepper preparations replace capsorubin (E 160c), to name but a few examples.
The possibilities are virtually endless, unless the taste of the coloring foods becomes too dominant in the overall flavor.