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Plant-based natural colors in soft drinks and alcoholic beverages

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Plant-based colors in beverages to maximize consumer appeal

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Color is a powerful tool in creating an enticing consumer experience.

It can instantly shape the perception of a beverage even before it reaches the lips, influencing consumer choices without conscious thought. The appearance of a beverage and its packaging sets up flavor expectations and helps to define product identity.

Luminous colors can be used to signify simple and sweet experiences. Strong, bright colors can create feelings of energy and stimulation. Beverages designed to promote emotional wellbeing often use soft gradients and pastel hues in the product and packaging.

Colors can also have very different impacts in different contexts. Blue, for example, can be used to develop innovative new products that generate consumer excitement in diverse ways. In a carbonated soft drink, blue might be used to create a sense of mystery around the flavor.

A blue spirulina kombucha, on the other hand, draws attention to the health-boosting qualities of its hero ingredient. Every beverage is unique. With the right use of color, brands can tell an authentic story that resonates with their consumers and helps their product stand out on the shelves.

Consumer concern over artificial colors

The choice of shade is crucial, but the choice of coloring ingredient can be every bit as important in today’s market. Beverage manufacturers have long relied on artificial colors including Red 40, Blue 1, and Yellow 6 to deliver bright, stable shades in their products. However, concerns over their health impacts mean there is now growing momentum towards natural alternatives.

A 2023 global consumer survey by FMCG Gurus shows:

  • 60% say it is important that the coloring in food and drink is natural.1
  • 61% say ‘free from artificial colors’ claims influence their purchase decisions.1
  • 58% say they became more attentive to ingredient listings on food and drink over the previous 12 months.1

Over the last five years, artificial colors were used in a significant proportion of global product launches for sports and energy drinks (24%), nutritional drinks (14%), and carbonated soft drinks (CSDs) (13%).

Mintel chart

Figure 1: Global beverage launches containing artificial colors between 2019-2024.2

Nonetheless, manufacturers globally are moving toward natural colors. Europe has already significantly reduced the use of artificial colors, featuring in only 1% of food and beverage launches in the region between 2018 and 2023.3

In North America, 7% of food and beverage launches contained artificial colors over the same period compared to 11% for natural colors and coloring foods.3​ The topic has also attracted significant attention in the US in recent times following California’s decision to ban Red 3, which can be used in beverage applications including sodas and nutritional drinks. Several other states are now following suit, and California is also considering introducing bans for additional artificial colors.

New possibilities with plant-based colors

Plant-based colors can provide the ideal alternative to artificial colors. Created from fruits, vegetables, and plants, they can be used to deliver a broad spectrum of bright, stable shades in beverages. Crucially, switching to plant-based colors also allows brands to build consumer confidence by using ingredients they can trust.

The options include coloring foods, which are color concentrates made from edible fruits, vegetables, and plants using physical processing methods. Due to the way they are created, a red shade could be listed as ‘fruit and vegetable juice for color’ or ‘carrot and blackberry juice for color’ in the US. The same color might be described ‘concentrate of carrot and blackberry’ or ‘coloring food (carrot and blackberry)’ in the EU.

Technical considerations

The wide variety of colors available in the plant-based toolbox allows manufacturers to drive innovation, whether they want to develop a blue CSD as part of a limited-time offer, a vibrant red sports nutrition drink, or a bold yellow limoncello.

As plant-based colors rely on natural pigments, various factors need to be considered to achieve optimal results. These include the pH value, processing conditions, ingredient interactions, packaging, and storage conditions. By working with a knowledgeable supplier, it is possible to achieve excellent results in the vast majority of applications.

Blue, green and violet hues

Spirulina is not just a popular health food – it can deliver brilliant blue hues in beverages. When combined with other plant-based colors, it can also be used to achieve navy blue, green, and violet hues. Spirulina color concentrates can be labeled as ‘spirulina concentrate’ in the EU and ‘spirulina extract (color)’ in the US. While they have been used in foods such as confections and dairy for decades, achieving natural blues in beverages has been challenging in the past due to spirulina’s sensitivity to acid and temperature.

GNT’s EXBERRY® Blue Beverage Solution is a patented formulation technology that stabilizes the pigment’s protein structure in acidified beverages. This means it can also now be used in many sports, energy, and carbonated drinks, enhanced waters, and alcoholic beverages below 20% alcohol by volume (ABV), opening the door to a new world of product innovation.


A spectrum of soft pinks to deep purples

A variety of fruit and vegetable concentrates allow manufacturers to achieve a bright spectrum from soft pinks to deep purples, all while being water-soluble and heat-stable. These include red potatoes, purple sweet potatoes, black and purple carrots, blueberries, and blackcurrants. These raw materials contain anthocyanin pigments, which are influenced by pH but have excellent heat stability. Red potato, for example, can provide a replacement for Red 40 at levels between pH 2 and 3.5, where it delivers a bright, yellowish-red hue.

Purple sweet potato concentrates can provide stunning pink hues at low pH levels while black and purple carrots can deliver deep red to reddish-purple hues. Beet concentrates, meanwhile, are pH-independent and can provide a good option for ready-to-mix powder beverages, such as high-pH protein powders where strawberry pink hues are desired.


Natural yellow and orange hues

Carotenoids provide the best natural yellow and orange hues for most beverage applications. These pigments are derived from vegetables like carrots or the saltwater algae Dunaliella Salina​. Carrot juice concentrates provide advantages from a labeling perspective as they can be declared as ‘vegetable juice for color’ or ‘carrot juice for color’ in the US or ‘carrot concentrate’ in the EU.

Algae-derived carotenes are declared as ‘beta-carotene for color’ in the US and ‘Color: Carotenes’ or ’Color: E 160a’ in the EU. Carotenes made from algae can be processed using essential oils and they are a highly sustainable source due to the way the raw materials are grown and harvested.

Stabilized forms of carotenoid-based colors, such as carotene emulsions or stabilized carrot concentrate, allow for vibrant hues with optimal stability performance. Turmeric concentrates, which contain curcumin pigments, can also deliver a bright yellow hue and are listed as ‘turmeric (color)’ in the US or ‘turmeric concentrate’ in the EU. However, they are light-sensitive so are best suited to products with opaque packaging, such as canned beverages and ready-to-mix powder systems.


Using color to connect with consumers

To thrive in today's fast-paced marketplace, new products need to create a strong initial impression. By making color a key focus at the start of the innovation process, manufacturers can create beverages that captivate consumers from the very first glance.

Colors made from fruits, vegetables, and plants can now provide a comprehensive array of solutions to support requirements on shade, cost-in-use, stability performance, and labeling. Beverage companies can also share stories about how their plant-based colors are created, focusing on how the raw materials are grown and how they are manufactured. They might even use logos on the front of the bottle to showcase that their drink has been ‘colored with fruits and vegetables’.

Combining visual appeal with natural ingredient declarations, plant-based colors can be used to craft products that perfectly match modern consumer expectations.


1.​ FMCG Gurus. Custom Survey - Global and Regional - Clean Label & Naturalness. (Q2 2023).
2.​ Mintel. GNPD.
3.​ Mintel. Patent insights: emerging food colour innovations.​ January 2024.