China food coloring: Natural food colors vs. Artificial colors

Wednesday June 05, 2024

Any food product is instinctively scrutinized from a visual sense before deciding on purchasing or consumption. Consumers’ inclination to a particular food item is primarily visual specific to the color of the food which aids the consumers to predict the flavor and taste of the food. For these reasons, natural and artificial colors play a vital role in the food industry.

Comparing Natural food colors vs. Artificial colors Advantages and disadvantages

1. Source

The natural colorants are derived from natural sources including plants and microbes. Synthetic food colorants(Artificial colors) are chemicals processed from coal tar compounds and most of them contain dyes from the azo group.

2. Security, Color stability, and Cost

 The food ingredient industry puts more effort into developing synthetic colorants due to their stability, attractive color, and low cost, take the red color as an example, there are many different kinds of red artificial colors: Azorubine, Amaranth, Ponceau 4R, Erythrosine, Allura Red AC. Much research and evidence prove that these fascinating artificial colors are responsible for many health problems. Young children respond to synthetic colorants exceedingly and symptoms include irritability, sleep issues, lack of attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity [a clinical condition called “Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder” (ADHD)],  increased incidence of asthma and allergies, toxic impacts on the liver, renal function, lipid profiles, and behavior.

Natural food colors are always affected by temperature and pH, so they can not be as stable as artificial colors. Natural food colors have the most important attribute: health benefits. Even though natural pigments have been used in the food industry widely, Anthocyanins, carotenoids, phycobiliproteins, betalains, and chlorophylls remain the most commonly used for food applications, and they all have significant benefits in health, for example, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and so on. Because natural food colors have long-term health benefits, more and more consumers choose foods using natural colors.

Representative chemical structures from the most common types of natural colorants applied in food systems. The chemical structures were downloaded from (accessed on 21 February 2021)

3. Food enterprises in Chinese markets choose color ingredient trend: Natural colors for food

With the strict supervision of national regulations and more and more consumers caring about adding artificial colors, the importance of natural food colors become outstanding in food industries. There are more than 40 kinds of natural pigments allowed to be produced and used in China, annual output exceeds 10,000 tons. Natural food colors are widely used in food and beverage industries, such as cake, candy, ice cream, milk tea, Nutricosmetics, etc.

Natural colors in food systems

China Natural Food Colors: Type, Source, and Application

China law allows food enterprises to use fruit and vegetable powder, and plant extracts in GB2760-2024 as natural food coloring to create charming visual effects for food and beverages. Briefly introduce some common natural colors that are widely used, such as spirulina extract, rose extract, Aronia berry extract, cuttlefish ink extract, and so on.

Natural Blue: Phycocyanin

Phycocyanin is also called blue spirulina, spirulina extract, extracted from spirulina, a water-soluble colorant, a kind of pigment-protein, taking cute blue color to end food products. It is easy to find phycocyanin milk tea in Chinese markets, phycocyanin candy, and ice cream in the EU and US. Phyciycanin has lots of benefits, including antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, skin-friendly and anti-cancer.

Natural Red: Aronia Berry Extract

Aronia berry extract, the core element is anthocyanins, will be affected by pH, taking a natural red or purple color to terminal food products. To get Aronia berry extract, the manufacturers can use physical and chemical extract methods, comparing all methods, the physical method is better because manufacturers use physical methods only using water as auxiliaries, more safer.

Natural Black: Cuttlefish Ink Extract(Sepia color)

Cuttlefish ink extract, a natural black color, is made from cuttlefish ink sacs, the basis of cuttlefish ink extract is protein, which is always used as vegetable carbon replacement, but only a few factories have the technology to remove the fishy smell from the cuttlefish juice, Non-fishy cuttlefish ink extract is popular in the food industry, used in cakes, dumplings, hamburger, etc.

Natural food color using method: pH and Temperature

Enterprises that use natural food colors must consider the pH and temperature conditions, natural color stability will be affected by these factors. Take spirulina extract, for example, ①pH stability: Its color shade is stable at around pH 4,5-8,0. Aggregation and precipitation occur at around pH 4,2 as phycocyanin has a combined structure with protein. ②Heat stability: Being a colorant combined with protein, it is recommended to add Spirulina blue to the solution after cooling down or at about 60°C and cool it down immediately after adding.

Visual color appearance of 0.04% (w/w) PC solutions unheated and subjected to thermal treatments at 70 and 90 °C at pH 2.5–6.0 at day 0 and after 28 days of storage at 4 and 25 °C

Regulatory criteria

Different countries have different standards and rules about natural food colors. Take spirulina extract, for example, It is fully in compliance with regulatory criteria for coloring food in the EU and the USA as well as in Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries. In China and Korea, spirulina extract is used as a food additive, but in the EU, it is used as a coloring food.

China Natural Blue Food Color: Latest Progress and Application Prospect

Compared with other colors, the natural blue color is unusual and rare. In the total world market, there are only three types of natural blue colors used in the food industry: Clitoria ternatea extract, Gardenia blue, and Spirulina extract. But there is no regulation allowing Clitoria ternatea extract used in China. Gardenia blue and Spirulina extract show different blue colors in the water solution.  Gardenia Blue and Yellow are derivatives of Genipin, where an amino acid is added. Genipin is cytotoxic and has an ability to cross-link gelatin and other molecules with amines.

Gardenia blue forming process

Spirulina extract can give foods a cute blue color, and the main component of blue spirulina is protein, although spirulina extract application is limited by temperature and pH, industries that meet the conditions of using spirulina extract when choosing the natural blue color, spirulina extract is more preferred, especially, ice cream, fudge, milk tea, etc enterprises.

In the UK and Republic of Ireland, ask your Starbucks barista for the Bubbletastic when ordering, but in all other stores across the EMEA region, the same bubbly beverage is known as the Bubblepop

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