Humans have been coloring food for centuries. We do it for tradition, for aesthetics, for fun! Everyday, biotechnology is opening frontiers for new pigments with an array of novel benefits. Let’s take a look at some exciting developments in the next generation of food pigmentation.

The ‘Why’ of Color…

It is both obvious and well proven that the appearance of food affects our perception of how safe, nutritious, fresh, and tasty it is. So its color is important.

Sometimes color is used to make an impression, like blue Curaçao or green ketchup. Other times, color is added to compensate for effects of exposure to light, air, moisture, or other factors in processing. Adding color makes some food ‘fun’, and other foods more appetising.  We add colors not only to food but to cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. The color of products like candy or medicines makes them more recognisable as well as more desirable.  

The market for food colorants is large. Pressures on this market come from changing consumer preferences, increasing demand, changing climate, and shortage of resources.  Food pigments derived from traditional agricultural sources cost about 5 times more to make than synthetics. They’re dependent on weather conditions, labour and transportation. Also they require land and water to produce. 

Synthetic pigments, derived from petroleum, are more intense, less expensive, and have a longer shelf life than naturally-derived pigments. However, land, water and petroleum are expected to be in shorter supply over the coming decades.

In addition, consumer preferences are changing. People want natural rather than synthetic products; and clean labels –  meaning no mysterious chemicals among the ingredients.  Biotech is meeting these demands in a number of innovative ways.

Innovations in Food Colors

Here are some of the exciting new biotech advances in natural food coloring: 

  • The New Blue. Rare in nature, blue is also rare in food. But that may change, due to recent research into an organism called Saslea ostrearia. Haslea is a sea-dwelling diatom that releases mareinne, a blue compound that produces France’s prized green oysters. (Yes, green. The oyster’s gills are yellow, so when they take up the mareinne in the water, the oyster turns green). Scientists from BIOVADIA have discovered five new species of Haslea located in oceans around the world. Research indicates that some of them are adaptable enough to grow in laboratories. BIOVADIA is working on production of a reliable blue pigment for foods, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.
  • Biofluorescence. Some micro-algae produce light-harvesting compounds called phycobiliproteins. These compounds have various pigments in hues of pink/purple, blue, orange and blue/green. Like chlorophyll, these compounds collect solar energy which the algae converts into sugars. Since some of these organisms survive in hot springs, their pigments remain stable at high temperatures. And some of them are luminous! Imagine a glowing purple cocktail in a dimly lit bar…
  • Functional Colors. Some consumers are concerned about possible undesirable health effects from consuming synthetic food colors. For those concerns, the good news is that pigments derived from some algae, archaea, and bacteria have the potential to offer serious health benefits. These microorganisms produce not only pigments, but other compounds with anti-inflammatory, anti- tumor, and immunoregulatory properties. Mareinne, the blue source discussed above, may also have antimicrobial properties. 
  • Fermented Fungi. While working on her PhD, Denmark’s Gerit Tolborg isolated fungal substances that produce stable red colors. She’s now one of the founding team of a new company, Chromologics. By growing, harvesting, fermenting, and processing fungus, Chromologics produces a natural red pigment in 3 weeks, rather than the 3 months needed by traditional agriculture – and at almost no environmental cost. Their colors are tasteless, stable at various temperatures and pH, not climate-dependent, and compatible with many dietary requirements such as halal, kosher, and vegan.
  • Nano+biotechnologies. Nanotechnology can help with the commercialization of new food colorants by increasing shelf life, solubility, and stability. Microencapsulation of coloring agents makes them easier to handle in production, leading to better delivery systems for food.

Developing new bioprocesses is a multi-step undertaking. From the initial concept to development of practical and feasible applications, talented and curious people move the idea forward. If you see a colorful future in food, contact grapefrute today.