Why scientists are calling the discovery of a natural blue food coloring 'critical' and 'exciting'

Scientists have just discovered a cyan blue color that can be used as a natural alternative to synthetic blue food dye. (Photo: Getty Images)
Scientists have just discovered a cyan blue color that can be used as a natural alternative to synthetic blue food dye. (Photo: Getty Images) (We Are via Getty Images)

Blue food has a bad rap for looking unnatural, but scientists have just discovered a cyan blue color that can be used as a natural alternative to synthetic blue food dye.

The findings, which were published in the journal Science Advances, detail how blue is one of the rarest colors in nature's food palette. That's especially true of the greenish-blue cyan hue, which doesn't give scientists a lot of sources for natural blue food dyes.

"There really has been a big push from a lot of consumers in recent years to replace the synthetic ingredients in our food with more natural alternatives," Pamela Denish, lead study author and a biophysics graduate student at the University of California, Davis, tells Yahoo Life. "A lot of companies have tried to do that, but they've run into the problem that there’s not a lot of 'natural' sources of blue, and certainly not many that are safe for consuming."

But, as the study reveals, a derivative of red cabbage can actually be a natural source of the rare color. To locate the color, Denish and fellow researchers from the University of California, Davis, along with scientists from Mars Wrigley studied red cabbage's anthocyanins, a water-soluble pigment that's also found in blueberries. Anthocyanins are responsible for giving some foods a natural red, purple or blue color.

Red cabbage only contains a small amount of blue anthocyanin, but Denish and her team discovered a way to turn the red cabbage’s other anthocyanins into blue anthocyanins using special enzymes they developed.

The work originally began with researchers at Mars 20 years ago, but researchers at the University of California, Davis, were able to figure out how to produce the color on a large scale. "It finally solves Mars' 20-year problem," Denish says.

(Photo: Science Advances)
(Photo: Science Advances)
(Photo: Science Advances)
(Photo: Science Advances)

Denish and her team conducted trillions of potential protein sequences with the help of a computer until they found a formulation for the right color.

Currently, the artificial dye FD&C Blue No.1 is the main color for achieving a blue hue in the food industry, Justin B. Siegel, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of California, Davis and study co-author tells Yahoo Life. The newly-discovered color is incredibly similar and opens up the option of even more natural food colors. "A natural blue dye is also critical because blue is necessary to produce other colors across the entire spectrum — i.e. blue and yellow mix to produce green," he says.

The anthocyanins the new blue color are derived from are "a type of flavonoid, a compound with antioxidant benefits found naturally in many foods, such as blueberries, tart cherries, pomegranates and grapes," registered dietitian Keri Gans, author of The Small Change Diet, tells Yahoo Life. These anthocyanins "range in colors depending on pH," Jamie K. Alan, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Life.

Alan says that there isn't a lot of data on the safety of consuming anthocyanins, although she says they're "more likely to be safe," particularly in the small amounts that would be used for food coloring. Siegel says that the anthocyanin used is from the "well-established" natural red cabbage color, which is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use as a food color. "Safety studies for the isolated compound should still be conducted though to ensure no unforeseen issues from the isolated compound arise," he says.

Before this discovery, there was no natural alternative for blue food coloring, Denish points out. As a result, she says, companies that used natural red and purple dyes, which are easier to come by, couldn't use an "all-natural" or "naturally derived" label on their foods if they also wanted to include blue. "Companies are excited that they’ll be able to give more all-natural options to their customers," she says.

Beth Warren, founder of Beth Warren Nutrition, tells Yahoo Life that she's "excited" by the news. "This can help to encourage researchers to look back to whole food sources and explore how to have them enhance food products," she says. "It can help decrease the composition of heavily processed products made from factory-manufactured chemicals and instead create a more wholesome product."

Denish says the antioxidant properties of anthocyanins are an added bonus. "Not only are we substituting the synthetic ingredients — we’re adding something that could have health benefits," she says.

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