Fans of M&M’s, the popular candy-coated chocolate treats, can be divided into two generations: those who grew up with tan M&M’s in the mix and younger folks who enjoy the bright-blue ones introduced in 1995. Now another change may be afoot—instead of synthetic dye, the blue color could come from spirulina algae.
Last August, Mars, the maker of M&M’s, received Food & Drug Administration approval to use spirulina extract from the cyanobacteria Arthrospira platensis as a color additive for candy. Blue, it turns out, is a particularly difficult color for food makers to render naturally.
But several new naturally derived ingredients are in the pipeline. “Food colorings is one of the areas where the trend for natural varieties at the expense of artificial and synthetic ones is most pronounced,” says Jonathan Thomas, principal market analyst at Leatherhead Food Research.
Indeed, the market for food colorings has shifted away from those made entirely in the factory. In 2011, for the first time, global sales of natural food colorings surpassed those for synthetics, according to Thomas. Additives such as flavors, preservatives, and noncaloric sweeteners are likely to follow the same path, experts say.
Last year, almost a quarter of U.S. consumers reported that they read labels to check for artificial colors and flavors, according to consumer research firmNMI. That is 15% more than in 2012, points out Diane Ray, the institute’s vice president of strategic innovation. Label readers tend to be older and more educated, but the preference crosses all income levels.
People don’t see natural foods as luxury items. “Consumers believe they shouldn’t be paying more for natural ingredients. They feel that’s how food should already be: natural, real,” Ray says. “When a food maker switches to natural and the price goes up, people get a little angry.”
The definition of natural is a function of consumer perception on the one hand and regulatory requirements on the other. One helpful framework is the European Union’s three criteria for a natural flavor. According to the EU, the substance must be something that first exists in nature, such as vanilla flavor. The raw material must be natural, rather than a synthetic chemical. And the process to obtain the flavor must be natural. Natural processes include fermentation and nonchemical extraction.
But food makers have additional requirements for taste, cost, supply reliability, stability, and even sustainability. For these reasons, there is an almost endless need for innovation in food ingredients.
Tate & Lyle, the U.K.-based ingredients giant behind Splenda sweetener, launched an open-innovation program in 2010 to bring more ideas to its research and development process. “We work with a broad range of potential partners from universities to early-stage companies to companies even larger than Tate & Lyle,” says John Stewart, the company’s director of open innovation.
Sometimes ideas can come from very far away. One Tate & Lyle partnership is with New Zealand’s BioVittoria for a zero-calorie natural sweetener. BioVittoria is cultivating a melon relative, grown only in southern China, to obtain an extract approximately 150 times as sweet as sugar.
“Of all the interesting trends we’ve seen, the perception of natural is very important,” Stewart observes. “But there are also pressures around affordability and sustainability. I think the jury is out right now on exactly where that will land.” One thing is certain, however. People who read product labels will have to decide for themselves what is natural enough for them.