The next time you visit your local grocery store, take a moment to check out how many packages proclaim that their contents are “free of artificial ingredients.” Chances are that it won’t take you long to spot at least a dozen. This is because today, in response to strong consumer demand, more and more brands are working to reduce or eliminate the use of synthetic additives in their products.
Just how strong is this demand? According to the 2018 Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council, a remarkable 70 percent of consumers would be willing to give up a favorite product for an alternative that did not contain artificial ingredients.
However, it’s not always an easy task to eliminate artificial ingredients or to replace synthetic ingredients with natural options. Case in point: food coloring.
Although many food brands and manufacturers are interested in using food coloring derived from natural rather than artificial sources, doing so is more challenging than you might think. Not only do natural colors have a number of limitations that artificial colors don’t—for example, natural colors tend not to be as vivid, they can be affected by factors like acidity or exposure to light and heat, and they can change the overall texture and flavor of foods they are added to—they are also much more expensive to produce. It’s therefore understandable that, even in the face of consumer pressure to eliminate artificial ingredients, 45 percent of the $2.7 billion food colorant market is still made up of synthetic options.
But if the new startup Phytolon has anything to say about it, better options for natural food coloring could soon be at hand. The Israeli company is currently fine-tuning a novel technology that could make natural colors cheaper to produce and more effective to use. Read on to learn more about the startup and its promising solution to the problem of natural food colors.
What is Phytolon’s answer for better natural food coloring?
To produce better natural food coloring, Phytolon is working with betalains, which are pigments derived from certain plants. As described by Phytolon’s co-founder and CEO Halim Jubran, betalains “are responsible for coloring some of the most beautiful plants in nature.”
Phytolon is focusing on betalains for a number of reasons. For instance, not only are these pigments water soluble and completely natural, they provide a wide range of colors. Additionally, they are more stable than many other natural food colorants, making them suitable for use in a wide variety of applications. Betalains also have been known to possess pharmacological properties, and studies are currently underway to determine their potential as functional foods (these are foods that have positive health benefits beyond basic nutrition).
How does Phytolon’s technology work?
While there are already some beet-derived betalains on the natural food colorant market, they are typically only available as an extract. This means that just 1 percent to 2 percent of the active component of the color is present, so in the end, the product has a low color concentration and a limited color range (as well as a fairly strong taste of beets).
Phytolon, on the other hand, has developed a method of producing pure betalains. The company uses an exclusively licensed fermentation technology that expresses pure betalains from the plant genes responsible for color production. (Interestingly, these genes were only discovered a few years ago by a leading metabolomics researcher at Israel’s renowned Weizmann Institute.)
Essentially, the process uses ordinary baker’s yeast as a kind of bio-factory. Through the fermentation process, the yeast cells secrete the betalains—similar to the way in which humans produce sweat—which are then easily separated from the yeast through simple centrifugation.
Jubran notes that while the technology itself may be novel, the concept of producing new ingredients or products through the fermentation of baker’s yeast is well established and safe. Furthermore, because the pure betalains are easy to separate from the yeast, the finished betalain product contains no genetically modified organisms, even though part of the manufacturing process involves genetic engineering. At present, Phytolon has an exclusive licensing agreement to use both the genes and the technology for commercial natural colorant production.
What’s next for Phytolon?
While the technology and processes that Phytolon is using hold great promise, it will still be several years before production can be scaled to the level needed to support market demand. At present, the team is still exploring different color variants and working to optimize the system to make production as cost-effective as possible.
Phytolon hopes to begin scaling-up procedures in 2019. They will begin working toward regulatory approval the following year, and in 2021, seek to develop strategic partnerships that will help the company market and sell its colorants. Jubran has said that the company plans to first target the US as the largest potential market.