Food dyes fit for a plant-based palette

The Hansen sweet potato has taken red food dye vegan, but what are some of the other ingredients being used to lend products a little natural colour?

9 May 2019
image credit: Chr. Hansen

Get this – food scientists have created a brand-new vegetable! Sadly, we’re not talking a mad cauli-carrot-cabbage with legs, but the Hansen sweet potato will be of particular interest to vegans as the arrival is set to greatly impact the food dye realm.

The potato, which has an almost raw-meat-coloured red flesh, is the result of a decade-long development process from the Danish bioscience company Chr. Hansen, which set out to create a plant-based replacement for traditional red food dye.

Up until now, a pigment named carmine (also known as E120/Natural Red 4) has been the only mass-produced red colouring for many food products, including some major brands of sweets and yoghurts. Made from crushed and blended insect scales, it is unsuitable for those following an animal-free diet.

Alternatives to carmine do exist, but they have been fraught with issues such as short shelf life and bad aftertastes – until now.

So what are the ins and outs of this innovative veg? And what is the state of play with food dyes today when it comes to the vegan wave?

Simply red

Carmine is derived from a scaly, cacti-living, parasitic insect named the cochineal. It takes a reported 70,000 of these critters to cultivate one pound of the pigment. While the consumption of insects continues to be pushed as a sustainable food source, carmine and the process surrounding it clearly don’t mesh with the vegan diet.

Enter the Hansen sweet potato.

The new vegetable has already spawned two liquid red food dyes under their ‘FruitMax’ brand.

"Strawberry red is a popular shade for food products – from cakes to confectionary to milkshakes," said Dalmose Rasmussen, VP of commercial development at Chr. Hansen.

"But until now it has been nearly impossible to make a fire-engine red colour with no risk of off-taste without using carmine. And as consumers move towards vegetarian and vegan food choices, the need for a carmine alternative has become more pressing. Our new FruitMax red juice concentrates are 100% plant based and provide a new solution to our customers looking to respond to this consumer trend.”

The pigment from the new sweet potato is said to be free from undesirable tastes and is vibrant and stable enough to have a long shelf life. Chr. Hansen is also releasing a number of other food dye products using the new pigment across the back end of spring, including a powder and a pinkish-red, cost-effective blend that contains black carrot.

Dye another day

While red is the only dye commonly made with insects, the majority of the other widely used colourants in food are not seen as strictly vegan-friendly due to the widespread testing on animals that occurs during the development process.

The fact that they are almost universally artificial has also seen a number of leading manufacturers (including Nestlé and Mars) phase them out over the past decade due to the rising clean label trend.

But while the ‘free from artificial colours’ statement can be found across a vast number of everyday products, the longevity of synthetic food dye as well as the low cost of producing it means that there is still a strong presence across Europe and, especially, America.

Chr. Hansen is not the only company hoping to offer an alternative. Last month, French botanicals company Naturex unveiled a new algae-based food colour line named Vegebrite Ultimate Spirulina, tapping into the demand for natural green and blue shades in the bakery and confectionery industries.

ColorKitchen, which specialises in plant-based food colourings, has recently expanded into food colouring consultation due to the rise in the number of food producers and kitchens looking to phase in natural colouring. The US-based company uses the likes of turmeric, spirulina, beet and annatto to create their plant-based colours, removing flavours and textures during the dye-making process to leave just the hue behind.

They also recently introduced a dye-free, heat-stable, deep red velvet food colour that doesn’t fade when cooked.

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