Physical & Chemical Properties of Caramel Color

Origin and Description

Caramel Color is the dark brown material that results from the carefully controlled heat treatment of food grade carbohydrates. In fact, for many years Caramel Color was known as “burnt sugar color.”

Caramel Color is not a flavor but simply a coloring agent. When Caramel Color is used at the usual low concentrations required in most food coloring applications, it generally has no significant effect on the flavor profile of the finished product. For those special products with delicate flavor profiles, Sethness has developed various Caramel Colors with a mild taste even at more concentrated levels.

Caramel Color is defined and regulated as a food color additive. In the United States it is covered under a color additive regulation defined under Title 21 CFR Sec. 73.85. The amount of Caramel Color which can be used in food is limited only by good manufacturing practices.

Caramel Color Classes

Internationally the FAO/WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has divided Caramel Color into four classes depending on the food grade reactants used in its manufacturing:

  • Class I is Plain Caramel Color
  • Class II is Caustic Sulfite Process Caramel Color
  • Class III is Ammonia Process Caramel Color
  • Class IV is Sulfite Ammonia Process Caramel Color

Tests on these classes of Caramel Color have supported the safety of the product.

Labeling Issues

Many food processors would like to have Caramel Color formally defined as a “natural” color, and indeed, Caramel Color is made from ingredients that can be found in nature. There is no simple answer to the question regarding the “Natural” status of Caramel Color because the FDA does not have a legal definition of a “Natural” color additive. According to the FDA any color added to food means the food becomes “Artificially Colored.” “Natural” on Food Labeling (fda.gov) states: “The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.” There is no “Natural Certificate” for Caramel Color.

Caramel Color should simply be labeled “Caramel Color” or “Caramel” on product labels according to its intended use. See FDA for current labeling regulations. Caramel Color is a single additive, so there are no compositional constituents that need to be listed in the ingredient statement of the final food product.

Physical & Chemical Properties

Color Strength and Hue

The color strength of Caramel Color is defined as its Tinctorial Power, KO.560. This is the absorbance of a 0.1% weight/volume solution measured through a 1 cm light path at a wavelength of 560 nanometers (nm) using a high quality spectrophotometer. The higher the value of the absorbance, the Tinctorial Power, KO.560, the darker the Caramel Color.

The color tone of the Caramel Color is also important. This is defined by the Hue Index, which is the measure of the color hue or red characteristics of the Caramel Color. It is a function of the absorbance at 510 and 610 nm. Generally, the higher the Tinctorial Power, KO.560, the lower the Hue Index and the lower the red tones.

Specific Gravity

The baumé of Caramel Color is a method of measuring specific gravity which in turn reflects the weight/gallon of the product. The specific gravity of Liquid Caramel Colors ranges from 1.25 – 1.38, corresponding to a range of about 10.4 – 11.5 pounds/gallon. The corresponding dry substance content of the Liquid Caramel Color varies from about 50 – 70%.

pH Considerations

The pH of Caramel Color is important in some applications where it may influence the compatibility and functionality of the other components of the finished food or beverage by influencing the pH of the final product. However, Caramel Color has good functionality across a wide range of pH from 2 – 10. Most Caramel Color ranges in pH from 2.0 – 5.0, although Caramel Color which has been neutralized prior to spray drying may have a pH of about 8. Commercial Liquid Caramel Color should have a pH below 5.0 to provide good microbiological stability.

Ionic Charge

Caramel Color molecules carry ionic (electrochemical) charges which may be either positive or negative depending upon the processing conditions of a particular product. Most of the Caramel Color used today is anionic or negatively charged. However, there are specific applications where cationic or positively charged Caramel Color is required, particularly in applications where it comes in contact with proteins as in beer and meat products. Often color precipitation, flocculation, or migration problems can be eliminated with the use of a positive Caramel Color.

Sulfite Considerations

The majority of the Caramel Color used today is anionic or negatively charged. This product is manufactured using sulfite reactants and contains some sulfite as detected by the method specified by the FDA in its sulfite labeling regulations. While the amount of Caramel Color typically used in foods and beverages is a very low percentage of the total ingredients, the sulfite contributed by the Caramel Color must be taken into account when considering sulfite labeling for compliance with the FDA regulations. Because of these sulfite regulations, there is sometimes a need for a low sulfite Caramel Color. Positively charged Caramel Color is manufactured without sulfite reactants and thus has a low sulfite content. A complete line of low sulfite, positively charged Caramel Color has been developed to assist food processors in keeping the sulfite content of their formulated food products to a minimum. This Caramel Color may aid processors in staying under the FDA’s 10 ppm sulfite level that triggers sulfite labeling.

View our Sulfite Statement

Caramel Color In High Alcohol or High Salt Systems

There are also specific products which require Caramel Color which is stable in high salt or high alcohol concentrations. Caramel Color with these properties is available for such applications.

Viscosity

Since the viscosity of Caramel Color can vary, it is important to realize the viscosity is not a reflection of the color strength of the Caramel Color. In fact, high Tinctorial Power, KO.560 double strength Caramel Color is low in viscosity. Low viscosity Caramel Color is easier to handle, generally dissolves faster, and has greater stability and shelf life.

Microbiological Stability

Caramel Color has excellent microbiological stability. As Caramel Color is manufactured under very high temperatures and pressure conditions, the resulting products are essentially commercially sterile. The microbiological stability of Caramel Color is attributed to the high processing temperatures, high acidity, high osmotic pressure, and high specific gravity of the products. It will not support microbial growth in its undiluted form.

Other Considerations

Single Strength and Double Strength

In recent years, beverage manufacturers have increased their use of double strength Caramel Color. The terms “single strength” and “double strength” are general terms describing the relative color strength of caramel and may cover different ranges of color. Double strength Caramel Color was originally developed for use in dietetic beverages as it reduces the caloric content contributed to the beverage by the Caramel Color to about 25% of that contributed by a single strength color. However, double strength Caramel Color also offers greater cost efficiency, which has contributed to its rapid acceptance.

Acid Proof Caramel Color

The term “acid proof” relates to the use of Caramel Color in carbonated beverages. The term means the Caramel Color is stable in a beverage concentrate where it is combined with phosphoric acid and must remain stable for several months. Virtually all of the Caramel Color manufactured by Sethness Products Company is “acid proof”, even the color not specifically formulated for soft drinks.