New Options to Replace Caramel in Beverages

In the past year, we have noticed a marked increase in the number of requests from beverage brands to remove caramel. This wave of product conversion is taking place largely in response to negative consumer perceptions of caramel and specifically the fear that it may be carcinogenic

While it is important to note the FDA has said that, based on available information, it has no reason to believe there is any immediate danger presented by 4-MEI (4-Methylimidazole) at the levels expected in food, some reports have not been so generous. Consumer Reports has specifically petitioned to have limits set on 4-MEI.

While the presence of 4-MEI is limited to Class III and IV versions of caramel color, the problem for food and beverage brands is that consumers are likely not aware of that fact and ingredient labels do not specify class anyway. So the preference is to remove caramel entirely.

From a beverage perspective, the brands that are prioritizing caramel replacement appear not to be traditional carbonated soft drinks but rather beverages that are positioned as “better” alternatives. Leading examples include:

  • triple-imageReady-to-drink teas
  • Smoothie type drinks, especially those with added protein
  • Ready-to-drink iced coffees
  • Sparkling beverages
  • Coffee syrups and creamers
  • Iced tea mixes
  • Liquid drink mixes and water enhancers


There are a number of key considerations we must consider when reformulating without caramel. Some of the obstacles include stability to light and heat, low pH environment, presence of vitamin C, and cost-in use. Novel sources of natural brown, such as Sensient’s Sienna fruit juice are making the switch from caramel much easier. Here are some options to overcome potential obstacles.

Ascorbic Acid
Replacing caramel with a vegetable juice solution requires the combination of blue, red, and yellow sources. For example, Sensient Natural Blue and a red anthocyanin such as black carrot and beta carotene will get the job done. However, remember that anthocyanins are less stable in the presence of ascorbic acid whereas the beta carotene loves it. This is going to cause a subtle shade shift and the result will be a muddy yellow rather than a clean brown. In this case, a brown fruit juice such as Sienna can be a great solution — either by itself or in combination with a vegetable juice and beta blend.

Of all natural color sources, blue tends to be the costliest. While a blue vegetable juice is not generally as prohibitive in application as spirulina, it is still considerably more expensive than caramel. Again, a fruit juice solution like Sienna can be a great option. In fact, we are using it frequently in combination with a vegetable juice and beta blend as a tool to reduce cost-in-use.

pH Stability
Both blue and red vegetable juices are not stable in an extremely low pH environment below about 3. In this case, we can utilize a natural brown fruit juice. Sienna, for example, is pH stable and will be the preferred option in this instance.

Heat Stability
In the case of aseptic or UHT processing for dairy or juice beverages, temperatures during processing will reach 275 degrees. This can cause an issue with beta carotene shifting shade due to melting of the crystal structure at high heat. We have a few alternatives to consider. One option would be to use annatto or turmeric in place of the beta. Keep in mind that turmeric is not light stable, so this is only an option if the packaging is opaque. Potentially we could use lycopene in place of the beta. In this case, the shade shift might work to our advantage. Finally, we might employ a natural brown fruit juice like Sienna, which is quite heat stable.

With the ramping of interest in caramel that we are seeing now, the addition of Sienna fruit juice to our color toolbox is good timing. We expect a lot of brands will begin formulating without caramel across the food and beverage landscape.

If you have a project or just want to talk through some strategies and options, please feel free to set up a consultation or reach out to me.

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