Fermentation-derived betalain food colours could replace 70% of natural and synthetic options

31 Mar 2022

Phytolon’s precision fermentation-derived betalain colours “can replace 70% of the natural and synthetic” options once their full potential is exploited, the Israel-based start-up’s co-founder and CEO, Halim Jubran, told Ingredients Network.

The patented colour production technology uses fermentation with baker’s yeast to produce and release high titers of natural pigments of beet and cactus fruits.

Fermentation-derived betalain food colours could replace 70% of natural and synthetic options

The yeast strain is designed to release the purple and yellow pigments separately, said Jubran, enabling a full colour spectrum between purple and yellow, “including all purples, pinks, reds, oranges and yellows”.

It means vibrant colours can be produced without resorting to use of synthetic colours from non-natural sources.

Meanwhile, natural colours are “mostly farming-dependent plant extracts,” Jubran noted, whereas, according to Phytolon’s website, fermentation processes are cleaner, reducing carbon footprint by replacing agriculture.

“The sustainable value that our technology brings is embedded in the short fermentation cycled and high production yields,” said Jubran.

The website adds that, with increasing regulatory acceptance of “highly sustainable” technologies with better carbon footprints, “fermentation is designated to become the ingredient engine of the future”.

Phytolon is now preparing a life cycle assessment (LCA) to quantify the carbon footprint of its technology versus agriculture-based competing products, he added. “That is expected to demonstrate the positive impact on the environment that our technology brings.”

In terms of functionality, the precision-fermented colours have been demonstrated to be more stable to heat, light and pH compared to plant-extract natural colours, Jubran said, which is “attributed to the high purity and absence of plant impurities in our final product”.

Cost-wise, Phytolon’s colours are “currently positioned as cost-efficient [compared] to natural colours,” he said.

“Our plans consist of meeting the cost-efficiency of the synthetic colors in 2023,” he added. As part of this, Phytolon recently announced its partnered with Ginkgo Bioworks under which the pair will develop yeast strains with enhanced production yields which will help “pave the way to compete with synthetic colours in terms of cost and performance,” said Jubran.

Asked if Phytolon hopes precision-fermented colours could replace natural and synthetic options, Jubran replied: “Our fermented betalain colors are water soluble, and provide a wide color share (from yellow to purple), and were found to be compatible and competitive in multiple food categories.

“Therefore, they can replace 70% of the natural and synthetic colours, once [we] exploit the full potential.”

Food safety approval & 2023 launch

Nevertheless, the fermented colour offering is still some way off commercialisation; the company plans to launch first in the food and beverage market in 2023.

Jubran said Phytolon is now “almost ready” to submit petitions to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) after the completed proof of concept for safety and analytics.

He forecast a “clear regulatory path” in the US, through the Color Additive Petition pathway, and in the EU as a food additive.

“Our final product does not contain any yeast or DNA, and therefore qualifies for GMO-free classification,” Jubran added. “In Europe the yeast cells are considered processing aid, and therefore no GMO labelling applies.”

Natural or artificial: Is consumer education needed?

On its website, Phytolon says that its colour offering is a response to consumer demand for “healthy food and environmental sustainability”. The ever-increasing desire for naturally-sourced products, rather than synthetic ingredients, also continues to dominate in the list of demands from increasingly health-minded shoppers.

Given the resulting bright colours from Phytolon’s precision-fermentation process – a vibrancy consumers may normally associate with synthetic colours – Ingredients Network asked whether a level of consumer education over the process and its natural origins could be required.

Jubran’s response was that: “Dozens of fermentation-based ingredients were recently served to the food market by industry leaders. Fermentation is positioned as natural and state of the art approach for achieving healthy, efficient, and sustainable food systems.”

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