Growth in consumer demand for natural ingredients has been one of the most important phenomena in global food markets. With more than three in five consumers saying they try to avoid artificial colors, according to Nielsen data , the shift is so entrenched that natural and clean label are no longer “trends,” but norms.
However, the confectionery segment is perhaps different from others. Questions about colors are part of a broader set of health concerns: Rising childhood obesity means parents are wary of high sugar levels, while sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are also negatively perceived. On the other hand, when it comes to candy, the opinion of kids matters, and health is perhaps less likely to be a driver of product choice.
Natural vs. Artificial Colors in Candy
Expert researchers commissioned by Lycored conducted face-to-face interviews with 10 U.S. children and their parents. All were regular purchasers and consumers of gummy candy.
Each parent-child pair was sent an unbranded bag of gummies colored naturally with Lycored’s carotenoid-derived colors. They were also given another bag of gummies made by the same manufacturer, but colored artificially. The gummies with Lycored’s colors were fortified with vitamin C. The interview participants were then asked to examine the two bags and answer questions about them.
For Kids, ‘Candy is Candy’
All the participants were able to distinguish between the naturally colored candy and the artificial ones (although in some cases, this required scrutiny). The children tended to prefer the brighter, artificial colors to the muted natural ones, but
, they were excited about all of them. When asked if they would be willing to eat the naturally colored gummies, they answered “yes” with enthusiasm. A typical response was: “Of course, it’s candy! They are both candy―I would eat both!” In other words, natural colors were not a “deal breaker” for kids.
Parents See the Benefits of Natural and Clean Label
Recent scientific research, such as the 2016 “Seeing Red” report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), has raised consumer awareness of issues with artificial colors.
Although the parents in the Lycored study did not seek products containing natural ingredients, most were aware that artificial coloring is not a healthy option for their children. They said the carotenoid-colored candy appeared to contain less sugar and assumed they would be lower in other unattractive ingredients, such as HFCS. They expected the artificially colored candy to contain more additives, chemicals, artificial sweeteners and sugar. Even some of the children surmised that the brighter colored gummies would contain more artificial food coloring.
Most of the parents said they viewed candy as a treat and made allowances for sugar content and artificial features. However, most also read the labels on confectionery products. Primary items of concern were sugar content, serving size, artificial dyes, HFCS (which was called out by many without prompting), artificial sweeteners ending with “-ol” (such as xylitol and sorbitol), calories and carbohydrates. Some recounted negative effects of artificial colors on children’s health, and one mother attributed childhood obesity to unnatural additives in candy.
Research revealed that taste is king, with flavor expectations being the most important driver of liking and re-purchase. The color of the product was strongly associated with perceptions of the strength of flavor.
However, most participants did not understand that the coloring of the candy was not the source of the flavor. When they learned they would not have to sacrifice taste, the parents voiced a clear preference for natural colors, saying they would prefer to feed their kids healthy options. As one put it: “I would probably choose [the naturally colored candy], especially if the tastes are similar.”
Stability Not Sacrificed
Researchers also examined the performance of carotenoid-derived colors in vitamin-enriched gummies. They carried out accelerated and real-time shelf life stability tests on gummies colored with six different Lycored shades, comparing them with samples produced by the same manufacturer, but colored artificially.
The natural colors all remained true to fruit in their natural color hues. Their stability was strong under intense light conditions like the synthetic colors.
Candy is distinct from most other categories. Parents view it as a treat, and health concerns are rarely the most important driver of purchase choice. Nevertheless, as consumer research shows, when taste is removed from the equation, naturality and clean label become more important. Confectionery manufacturers who make the shift from artificial to natural have potential for success if taste remains favorable.
Christiane Lippert is the head of marketing, food at Lycored (lycored.com).