Along with the ancient Chinese, the Romans believed that if a plate of food was to meet with diners’ approval, it had to appeal not only to the taste buds, but also to the eye. This still holds true. And looking delicious has a lot to do with having an appealing, natural color.
For an almost endless array of food products, ranging from cookies and beer to fish sauce and ice cream toppings, caramel color most often imbues the item with its appropriate “complexion.” Sometimes subtle, sometimes intended to have a more deliberate impact, caramel’s palette of natural hues help a product conform to a diner’s visual expectations.
Exploring the palette
Caramel color is one of the most versatile and widely used food colorants. It is produced commercially by heating food-grade carbohydrates, typically a corn syrup. Various acids, such as phosphoric acid, acetic acid or citric acid, may be introduced to break the bonds that connect the sugars before they are caramelized, and certain salts can modify the end product’s characteristics. The manufacturer monitors and controls the heat during the process.
The result is a color palette extending from yellow and red to almost black. A generally accepted color measurement gauge is the Hue Index, which objectively measures the “redness.” While the absolute values of each Hue Index are meaningful, the relative values are more relevant. The higher the Hue Index, the more red the caramel color. However, caramel colors with higher color strength generally have lower Hue Index. The color strength is classified according to Tinctorial Power (the absorbance of a 0.1% weight/volume solution measured through a 1 cm light path at a wavelength of 560 nanometers). A higher tinctorial power means a darker color.
Caramel color has application in virtually every food-industry segment, from beverages to baked goods to microwave entrées. It is exceptionally tolerant of a wide range of physical and chemical environments. For example, caramel color has good functionality across a wide range of pH, from 2 to 10. Caramel color can also function as an emulsifier. In soft drinks, it helps maintain the suspension of flavor oils in a solution. Depending on processing, caramel colors possess a positive or negative ionic charge, which determines which caramel color should be used in the end product. Negatively-charged caramel colors use sulfite as a reactant, and are commonly found in acidic soft drinks. Positively charged caramel colors use ammonium compounds as a reactant, and are commonly found in soy sauces and beer to avoid reaction with proteins.
A color with a class
FDA considers caramel color a GRAS ingredient and it is exempt from certification for use as a coloring agent Four distinct classes of caramel are officially recognized by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (Compendium for Caramel Color):FDA considers caramel color a GRAS ingredient and it is exempt from certification for use as a coloring agent Four distinct classes of caramel are officially recognized by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (Compendium for Caramel Color):
Class 1 (plain caramel, or caustic caramel). These are manufactured by heating carbohydrates either with or without acids or alkalis. No sulfites or ammonium compounds are used. Also known as “high-proof alcohol” caramel or spirit caramel, it is much more concentrated and therefore contains more flavor. Class 1 caramel has the same, or worse, taste than burnt sugar and is used to flavor a variety of food items, including milk, fat, candy and even sugar. “Class 1 caramel colors have been growing in popularity,” says Brian Sethness, sales representative, Sethness Products Company, Chicago. “It is the most natural of the four classes of caramel. For this reason it is the only class Whole Foods, for example, will accept. It is also the only class that can be certified organic.”
Class 2 (caustic sulfite caramel). This is produced by heating carbohydrates in the presence of sulfite compounds, but without ammonium compounds. It is stable in alcohol, and it is found in certain alcoholic beverages, specifically sherry, cognac and tequila, and also in some balsamic vinegars.
Class 3 (ammonia caramel). This type is prepared by heating carbohydrates with or without acids or alkalis in the presence of ammonium compounds. Often referred to as the brewer’s caramel, it is commonly incorporated in beer-making and in soy sauce. In fact, its reddish tones account for its popularity in various dark Asian sauces, such as fish sauce, and in gravy bases. It is also found in the iced coffees that have surged in popularity in Japan. “Where it is not heavily marketed is in U.S. and Pacific Rim beer processing,” says Owen Parker, vice president of R&D, D.D. Williamson, Louisville, KY. “In the United States, the growing popularity of lighter-color and non-alcoholic beer beverages have reduced the preference for caramel colors.”
Class 4 (sulfite ammonia caramel). This type is obtained by heating carbohydrates in the presence of sulfite and ammonium compounds with or without acids or alkalis. This is the darkest of the four classifications of caramel. More caramel color is produced in this class—some 65% to 70%—than in any other class. It is included in a wide range of products, including blended whiskey, dark bread, pet food, soup and ice cream sandwiches.
Since it is so dark, it performs an extremely useful task of cocoa substitution. In formulations powdered caramel color can replace up to 50% of the much more expensive cocoa.
Its potential downside results from its sheer concentration. Though used in lower quantities than the lighter grades, the Class 4 Caramels do contain sulfites. If sulfite concentration in the final product exceeds 10 ppm, it must be included on the product label in the United States.
The inclusion of caramel color in both traditional and newly-introduced food products is an endless phenomenon. Yet, it is also changing its own character to become even more appealing.
“Not only is caramel color now available in an organic formulation, but we have been working on creating brand new applications, such as a caramelized apple juice concentrate using caramel color, which is the only way to standardize the color of a beverage claiming to have 100% apple content,” Parker says. “We’re also producing a caramelized onion juice concentrate for processors making soups and sauces.”
An ancient idea in coloring, caramel remains one of the most versatile and stable colors available today. It’s an “old” idea whose unique properties make it a part of many of today’s newest foods.
Martin Schultz is an experienced consumer and trade magazine writer with a special interest in food and food-technology topics. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.