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Can Natural Food Dyes from Cabbage Replace Synthetic Options?

Can Natural Food Dyes from Cabbage Replace Synthetic Options?

Ice cream made using blue dye created by the scientists using cabbage. Credits: Pamela Denish, University of California, Davis

New research published in Science Advances has suggested that a natural cyan blue extracted from red cabbage could replace synthetic blue dyes in food.

Food coloring is an essential part of the food and beverage industry; however, some research suggests that using synthetic dyes is not healthy for the consumer. The color cyan blue is not easy to find in nature, making this discovery significant for the industry’s innovation and developments.

The study was conducted by researchers at Mars Advanced Research Institute, which is Mars Wrigley’s science and technology team, along with scientists at the University of California, Davis’ Innovation Institute for Food and Health, Ohio State University, Nagoya University in Japan, the University of Avignon in France and SISSA University in Italy.

“Blue colors are really quite rare in nature – a lot of them are really reds and purples,” said Pamela Denish, a graduate student working with Professor Justin Siegel at the UC Davis Department of Chemistry and Innovation Institute for Food and Health, in a press release.

Scientists used synthetic biology and computational protein design tools to develop an enzymatic process to transform red cabbage anthocyanins into their desired color. Anthocyanin is a water-soluble vacuolar pigment found in foods such as blueberries, raspberries, black rice and more, showing color depending on their pH levels. Typically, the reds and purples in cabbages are used as a natural food dye.

The researchers used tools to search for enzymes they were interested incapable of converting the anthocyanin into blue from fractions of the red cabbage extract. This process has been used in the food industry before, such as in cheese production, for example.

How Are Synthetic Food Dyes Regulated?

While synthetic dyes are not seen as toxic, studies show how they affect the human body after they are ingested. Synthetic dyes are found in several food products, such as canned peas, candy and cake icing. They are also found in beverages such as sports drinks and beauty products such as mouthwash and shampoo.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines color additives as “any substance that imparts color to a food, drug, cosmetic, or the human body. Color additives include both synthetic substances and substances derived from natural sources. Color additives may be used in food to enhance natural colors, add color to colorless and ‘fun’ foods such as cake decorations, and help identify flavors (such as purple for grape flavor or yellow for lemon). Color additives are sometimes called food dyes.”

When evaluating the safety of the color additives, the FDA looks at the short and long-term effects of the dyes and goes through a chemical composition analysis to certify the additive. The FDA has approved nine certified color additives for use in the food category. These include FD&C Blue No. 1, FD&C Blue No. 2, FD&C Green No. 3, Orange B, Citrus Red No. 2, FD&C Red No. 3, FD&C Red No. 40, FD&C Yellow No. 5, FD&C Yellow No. 6. These labels must be present on the packaging of the items sold.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the regulations of synthetic dyes differ from those in the US. In Europe, five food additives are banned which are not prohibited in the US. These include potassium bromate and azodicarbonamide (ADA), BHA and BHT, brominated vegetable oil (BVO), Red dye no. 40 and yellow food dyes no. 5 and no. 6.

In Europe, brands like Nestlé use radish, lemon and red cabbage extracts as a food coloring in their chocolates. Interestingly the same chocolate brands in the US use artificial food coloring in their products.

“There’s been evidence for almost 40 years that food dyes trigger hyperactivity or inattention in children. About six years ago, the British government-sponsored studies found exactly that, so they urged food companies in Britain to replace synthetic dyes with natural colorings or no added colorings, and many British companies switched over. And then, the European Union passed a law requiring that any food that contained the dyes used in those two British studies would have to put a warning notice on, warning consumers that the dyes might trigger hyperactivity. And so with the threat of a warning label, it’s really hard to find these synthetic dyes,” said Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, to WUBR in 2014.

According to Forbes, children in the US consume 2,000 gallons of colorful dyes every day. This number is based on a study done by KIND in 2014.

“The study found that a child on average consumed somewhere between 100 mg to 200 mg a day of synthetic dyes,” said Stephanie Csaszar, a registered dietitian at KIND, to Forbes. “We took the lower number and multiplied it by 74 million children based on Census data and converted it to gallons.”

This study is now outdated, but it’s likely that this number has increased since then.

In 2019, KIND stopped producing their KIND Fruit Bites made from real dried fruit because they were not selling well. After some research, they discovered that the treats did not look as vibrant as other children’s gummy snacks sold in the market.

“This helped KIND realize that there is a very big problem. Ninety-eight percent of fruit snacks lead with sugar. They are not really fruit snacks, but instead are ‘Franken-food.’ We couldn’t compete with such ‘glow-in-the dark’ products,” said Daniel Lubetzky, founder and Executive Chairman of KIND.

Studies have found a correlation between food coloring consumption with hyperactivity, behavioral changes, hives and tumor growth in people. The behavioral effect in children from synthetic dyes was first proposed in 1975 by Benjamin F. Feingold, who was a pediatric allergist from California. The FDA interpreted this as inconclusive evidence. This hypothesis was then reviewed and reanalyzed by multiple researchers in future years, but it has not changed much in the regulations thus far.

Mars has removed artificial coloring from their dinnertime foods and has switched to natural colors in some of their confectionery products. But after doing consumer research, Mars will continue to use artificial coloring in geographical areas that do not find using synthetic dyes a concern.



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