NATURAL FOOD COLOR: Safer alternative to artificial food color

FOOD COLOR 1 Among the plant species tested, one of the best sources of blue pigment is the butterfly pea (Clitorea ternatea var. pleniflora).


Safer alternative to artificial food color

By Jheila Y. Dizon

AS MOST of us know, color plays a vital role in our food preferences because it can predetermine how we perceive the taste and flavor of what we are about to eat.

Like for instance in the case of choosing or buying fresh foods, we always rely on the color to determine their level of ripeness or even freshness.

But for processed food, it becomes a very different topic.

When food undergoes processing, it loses its natural vibrant color, thus the need for artificial color additives or food coloring.

After all, artificial coloring can make any food product more delectable and mouth-watering.

Unfortunately, some of these artificial food colors are said to be harmful to the body.

Although some claims remain to be validated and are subjected to debates, they can be toxic and carcinogenic.

To address this concern, researchers from the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) led by Lourdes B. Cardenas of the Institute of Biological Sciences, conducted a study with the objective of providing the consuming public a healthy and safe alternative to artificial food color using indigenous plants.

The study dubbed “Biotechnology in the Utilization of Natural Colors from Indigenous Plants” which was funded by the Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR), aims to identify the different indigenous plants with health benefitting natural colors and eventually develop technologies using these species.

As a process, the study screened some 20 indigenous plant species, among them included the alugbati, lipote, duhat, 4 o’clock, gumamela, Roselle, butterfly pea, pandan, turmeric, barberry, kamantige, begonia, mayana leaf, bougainvillea, talinum, oxalis, impatients, portulaca, nasturtium, and bell pepper.

These indigenous plants were screened using the following criteria: toxicity; tinctorial strength (potency of the pigment) but with minimal or without imparting any flavor or aroma; availability of the raw materials and ease of handling; mutagenicity (capacity to induce mutations); and, stability of the pigment under different pH, temperature, and light regimen.

Also considered in choosing the plant pigment as food colorant are: solubility in water, and demand of a particular color in the market.

As potential food colorants, the researchers included plant species with Anthocyanins and Betalains – these are plant pigments that are water soluble.

But Carotenoids were not included in the study as these pigments are not water soluble and are sensitive to light.

Meanwhile, the researchers included Curcuminoids (not water soluble), which can be found in turmeric, because it was found out to be the best alternative natural colorant to Tartrazine (synthetic lemon yellow azo dye primarily used as a food coloring).

To obtain the results, the colorants were tested under different types of food preparations – fresh, steamed, boiled, and baked.

The researchers prepared salad using the begonia, and ice cones or scramble with a whole extract from lipote, turmeric, and butterfly pea which were directly poured on top of the shaved ice.

A fondant was made using lipote, 4 o’clock, and butterfly pea color extracts; and gelatin, puto, suman, butter cookies, scones, and chocolates using the color extracts from alugbati, lipote, turmeric, butterfly pea, and 4 o’clock.

The extracted natural pigments were also placed inside microcapsules for stability.

Results of the study showed that among the plant species tested, the best sources of red colorant are: alugbati (Basella rubra L.), lipote (Syzygium curranii), and red 4 o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa L.).

On the other hand, the best source for yellow pigment is turmeric (Curcuma domestica (L.); for blue pigment, it is the butterfly pea (Clitorea ternatea var. pleniflora); and for green pigment, it came out to be pandan (Pandanus amaryllifolius Roxb).

Duhat (Syzygium cumini), red gumamela (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis L.), and roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa L.) were dropped from the list due to factors involving toxicity, stability of pigment, availability of raw materials, and difficulty in extraction of pigment, among other concerns.

The researchers noted that not all pigments from the plant species can be processed into colorants due to low tinctorial strength, and fragility, among others.

But even so, these can still be used as colorants for freshly-picked ingredients to dishes, which include the begonia, talinum, oxalis, impatiens, portulaca, and nasturtium.

As a final product, the project was able to develop natural colorants in the form of freeze-dried whole extracts, microcapsules, gelatin bars, and glycerine solutions.

With the health benefitting natural colors that these indigenous plants can provide, these natural colorants are a better option than the synthetic counterparts.

The researchers also said that naturally-sourced food colorants can not only improve the quality of our food, but it can also enable us to utilize these indigenous plants which are readily available and easily harvested even from our gardens.


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