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Food colour innovations: Precision fermentation, caramel alternatives and natural blues

Article-Food colour innovations: Precision fermentation, caramel alternatives and natural blues

© iStock/Zuckerstaetter natural food colouring, colour, dye, Zuckerstaetter, iStock-2026166061.jpg
The natural food colours space is a vibrant hotbed of innovation, from nascent cell-based colours to caramel alternatives, improved blues and reds from algae, and convincing solutions for plant-based meat.

The production of cell-based colours using algae, fungi or microbes could disrupt the natural food colour market. This is one of the takeaways from Mintel’s new report Patent insights: emerging food colour innovations, released in January.

In particular, the market analyst said that precision fermentation holds promise as a sustainable and cost-effective production method for food colours.

“Precision fermentation leverages microbial cells to produce high-value food ingredients such as colourants with a lower environmental footprint than those produced by existing methods, as the raw materials can be renewable or recovered. Precision fermentation is thought to enable the production of colours with a high and efficient production rate,” wrote the report’s author, Neha Srivastava, a senior patent analyst for the food & drink and beauty & personal care sectors.

However, she told this publication that cell-based colours are still in the early stages of development and are mostly coming from biotech startups. For example, Israel-based Phytolon is using precision fermentation to produce natural colours derived from baker’s yeast, whilst Nextferm Technologies Ltd has a pending patent for a novel yeast strain that produces a carotenoid containing astaxanthin, which imparts a distinctive pink colour.

“The major ingredient manufacturers are also trying their hands at cell-based colours, but their main focus is still on improving the stability of existing naturally sourced colours,” Srivastava said.

Working on stability

Indeed, processes and formulations that improve the stability of natural colours under varied conditions, such as temperature, pressure, and pH, are another pocket of innovation identified in the report.

“Encapsulation of colour pigments, the use of stabilisers or linking colour pigments with protein subunits are some of the recent technologies that help in the development of stable colours,” said Srivastava.

She gave the example of a patent-pending method to improve the stability of phycobilin based blue colour with a complex of phycobilin and a protein or polypeptide.

Consumer-friendly alternatives

There is also a lot of work underway to develop natural black, brown, white, and blue colours that are more acceptable to the market than the currently available options.

According to the report, caramel colours dominate the black/brown end of the spectrum, with Caramel IV as the most used black/brown colour. This suggests an opportunity for a wider range of natural or plant-sourced alternatives, said Mintel.

“Concern over the health implications of consuming certain caramel colours gives ingredient manufacturers an opportunity to produce natural black food colours, like vegetable carbon,” wrote Srivastava.

She cited a pending patent by Korea University claiming a natural caramel colour substitute, which is prepared by mixing a reddish pigment component extracted from black rice with a yellow pigment component extracted from turmeric.

Titanium dioxide (E171) is another colour that the food industry is looking to formulate out of products such as icing, confectionery, and supplements following an EU ban on its use as a food additive. A natural colour derived from native corn starch is one of the alternatives that has emerged, according to Mintel.

Natural blues that match the performance of their artificial counterparts continue to be elusive despite many years of R&D by the industry. For this reason, artificial blues are still common in sugar and gum confectionery, with 42% of North American launches between 2018 and 2023 containing Brilliant Blue FCF. Mintel predicted that in the future blue pigments from algae could replace artificial blues, as innovators focus on increasing the production efficiency of algae-derived pigments.

Adding colour to plant-based meats

A newer challenge for product developers is the colouring of meat substitutes.

“Producers seek to address the appearance and colour issues of plant-based meats. Thus, colours are being innovated for use in plant-based meats that closely mimic those of conventional meat before, during, and after the cooking process,” wrote Srivastava.

Solutions for plant-based meat alternatives mentioned in the report include a beet and fruit juice blend which imparts a raw pink/red colour that transforms to brown when cooked; and a pigment composition obtained by culturing modified bacteria.

Colouring foods tipped for growth

Whilst all the developments listed above relate to natural colours, the report also underlined the potential of colouring foods. Colouring foods are food ingredients such as carrots, blueberries, spirulina, and safflower, which give colour to food and beverage products.

Mintel said its Global New Product Database (GNPD) shows that colouring foods were used in 5% of European food and drink launches between 2019 and 2023, compared to 2% and 1% of North American and Asia Pacific launches, respectively. The top category for colouring foods was sugar and gum confectionery (30% of launches contained a colouring food), followed by desserts and ice cream (14%), sports and energy drinks (13%), and carbonated soft drinks (12%). 

“It is likely that colouring foods will become more common in Europe, in future, in part due to consumer and brand interest in naturalness in food and drink, and in part due to regulations that discourage or prevent the use of ‘unnatural’ additives and ingredients, as evidenced by recent regulatory changes to the use of titanium dioxide in Europe,” said Srivastava.

Colouring foods are the ultimate natural way to colour food or drink, as they are classified as food ingredients, not additives, and so are 'more natural' than natural additive food colours,” she added.

However, she warned that consumers may not be aware of the difference between a natural colour and a colouring food and may only understand claims relating to the absence of artificial ingredients, such as 'no artificial colours'. 

“While naturalness is important to consumers, price and taste are important to a higher percentage of consumers, and so boosting the natural image of a product by trading a natural colour with a colouring food may not be worth it if these attributes are negatively impacted,” she said.