Caramel Replacement Strategies

Increasingly, more of our customers are asking us to help them remove caramel color from some of their current formulations. This is especially prevalent for applications like cereal, cookies and certain breads such as marbled rye breads. We are also seeing an increased interest in removing caramel from soups and sauces.

Someone suggested that, for some consumers, caramel color is the new Red #40. It appears like that statement is a slight exaggeration based on one of our recent surveys, but the results were still a little eye opening. Caramel is the most avoided color after the synthetic FD&C colors, with more than 20% of women saying they actively look to avoid the food color when shopping for groceries.


The 2014 Consumer Reports article about levels of 4-MEI in some soda brands probably had a lot to do with creating disdain for caramel. While the data in that report was undoubtedly accurate, it failed to make a distinction between caramel classes. Additionally, since labels don’t differentiate between Class I and Class IV, consumers seem to just avoid the color altogether.

Caramel Offers A Number of Advantages

While caramel has low tinctorial strength, it still works well in most cereal and baking applications. The high usage rate typically required is offset by the low cost. Additionally, caramel has other attractive features including:

  • Very good heat stability
  • Few off-notes that restrict usage level
  • Stable color across a wide pH range
  • Exceptionally good light stability

From a technical standpoint, there are not many negatives when it comes to performance or cost-in-use for caramel.



Natural Blue as an Alternative

One common approach to replace caramel in a baked good or dry grocery product would be to use a combination of beet, beta carotene, and natural blue vegetable juice. This combination produces excellent brown shades assuming the pH is above 4. Note that spirulina would not be an option due to its current regulatory status. bowlAdditionally, if there is a heat step involved, spirulina is not stable. Fortunately, Sensient has a novel vegetable juice that works very well in this scenario.

There are, however, a couple of drawbacks. Firstly, natural blue is generally more expensive than other natural color sources so cost-in-use for this solution tends to be quite a bit higher than caramel. Additionally, we may get some fading in the red that might cause a shade shift. This is potentially a problem for both soups that go through a retort or an extruded cereal.

Another Approach

Our team has recently found quite a lot of success employing our Sienna natural brown fruit juice. It has many of the same advantages as caramel color and provides very appealing brown shades. It is an ideal replacement for Class I or Class II caramel. Sienna is stable across an extremely broad pH range and will stand up to heat and light.

From a usage standpoint, the Sienna fruit juice is very cost efficient so that is generally not a concern. However, it does have off-notes that can be undesirable depending on the application. In cereals, biscuits, and most baked goods we have experienced few issues. It really depends on the application, the level of flavor, and obviously the desired shade.

We continue to work on new technologies to help eliminate or mitigate the flavor off-notes, so we expect continued improvement in this area.

Final Thoughts

If you have any questions or projects where you need some assistance, please go ahead and set up a consultation or reach out to me directly. Additionally, you may request a sample of any of our natural brown solutions here.

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