Food colour – just how important is it?

Food colour – just how important is it?

By Dan Hall - October 2020

Colour is one of the most important sensory aspects of food and drink. As well as indicating its likely freshness and flavour, it can also influence consumer choice and enjoyment of a product.

Since the 1980s, there has been a reduction in the use of artificial colours and a move towards clean label ingredients. With an explosion in the number and variety of products on the market and greater consumer demand for clean label ingredients, it has never been more important for developers to perfect their product’s colour. This is particularly important for products sold in transparent packaging.

Sensory perception

As well as appearance, colour can also influence the perception of flavour. In one study, the addition of red colouring to an otherwise clear solution was shown to reduce the detection threshold for bitterness. In another study, members of a consumer test panel incorrectly identified a cherry-flavoured beverage as having a lime flavour after it was coloured green.

Sensitivity of colour

While artificial colours generally have a high tolerance to pH, light, temperature and oxidation, clean label colours are generally less stable. The processing of beverages can have a significant effect on their colour, especially for those that are heat treated. Red or pink drinks in clear packaging can even be prone to browning due to the effect of natural UV light. If you understand the factors that affect natural colours during thermal processing and throughout the product’s shelf-life, you’ll be able to achieve brighter and more stable colours without the need for artificial colours.

Measuring food colour

A consistent and objective approach to colour measurement is needed to determine whether a product’s colour changes after processing or throughout its shelf-life. The chosen technique also needs to be suitable for the colour testing required.

Chromameters and spectrophotometers are widely used for colour measurement in the food industry, with the latter typically used for transparent liquids such as drinks and colouring agents.

Product images are widely used as a visual reference when determining specifications for appearance, but care is required to ensure reliable colour reproduction as well as considering fading inks if printed. At Campden BRI, we use a DigiEye imaging system to capture pictures which are accurately measured for their colour pixel by pixel. This can be a valuable tool not only for specifications but to measure subtle changes during development, processing and shelf-life.

Although lab equipment can be used to measure colour, assessment by trained sensory panels under controlled conditions is still a critical step to identify the most appealing products.

Need help with your product’s colour or development?

Colour plays an important role in new product development which is why we’ve created a workshop that helps you innovate new ideas, screen product concepts and manage the development process to improve the likelihood of a success new product launch. Find out more here.

Alternatively, get in touch with Dan to find out how we can help you develop, test and monitor your food and drink colours.

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