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Because a world without colour is unimaginable!

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

Be it a kid or an elderly we admire the spread of the colorful rainbow across the sky, we never ceased to marvel at the gift of nature that thrilled and excited our senses with its colors.

Colour, has always been and shall be the most essential ingredient in all that we have or choose to possess, be it the purchases we make for our home or the clothes that we like to be seen in, the pictures that we click for memory’s sake or even the pets we like to possess.

Natural colors are assumed safe if they are non-allergic, non-toxic, non-carcinogenic, and biodegradable, thereby rendering no risk to the environment.The lower risk advantage of natural colors and changing perceptions of consumers to consume natural products, there is an increasing interest in the discovery of new natural colors.

Natural colors are primarily derived from plants, insects, mineral ores or microbial sources. Microbial colorants are preferable because of scalability ease as well as a potentially lower cost. Microbial fermentation for the production of natural pigments have several benefits such as cheaper production, higher yields, easier extraction, lower-cost raw materials, no seasonal variations, and strain improvement techniques to increase natural pigment. These can also have health benefits like anticancer activity, antimicrobial activity and antioxidant activity. Microbes produce a variety of pigments that can be used as food colors such as carotenoids, flavins, melanins, quinines, monascins, violacein, amongst others.

Advances in organic chemistry and metabolic engineering have enabled the mass production of microbes of interest. Studying the biosynthetic pathway for pigment production can help in understanding the roadblocks in the production of pigments and to counter that, genes can be cloned, and recombinant DNA technology can be used to increase pigment production. Using the appropriate fermentation strategies and modifying conditions to be more suitable for the production of pigments, developing low cost processes and extraction processes, co-pigmentation strategies, have all been applied for efficient microbial pigment production. Newly emerging tools such as nanotechnology has also been effectively used in the food industry, including in pigment formulation. Nanotized natural food colorants derived from microbial sources can increase stability, shelf life, or solubility, leading to better delivery systems for food, and feed.

Even though there are many types of natural pigments from various microbial sources, the commercial development of natural pigments as food colorants is challenging. Regulatory hurdles are high for the development of any new compounds for food use, including as a colorant. The cost of using natural colors is five times more than using synthetic colors, especially when used in confectionary items, where it can be 20 times more expensive. Substantial quantities of raw materials are required to produce equal quantities of natural colors than synthetic colors. Higher dosages of a natural color are normally needed for the desired hue, thereby increasing the cost.

Natural pigments have many product challenges with respect to cost, application, process, and quality. Microbial pigments have a weaker tinctorial strength and may react on different food matrices, causing undesirable flavors and odors. Synthetic food colorants that the food industry came to rely on over the past 50–60 years are relatively well-behaved and consistent in their performance. Replacement of synthetic colors with natural colors in the food industry is challenging, particularly with regard to the relatively low range of natural colors approved for food use. Deodorization is another issue that arises in natural pigment products as many of the available natural pigments have an odor that is undesired in the food products. Furthermore, natural colors are generally more sensitive to light, pH, UV, temperature, oxygen, and heat, leading to color loss caused by fading and a decreased shelf life. Some natural pigments are sensitive to other ambient conditions like metal ions, proteins, or organic compounds.

The idea to bring microbial pigments out of petri plates and on to the market. There is a need to find alternative colorants that are cost effective, completely natural, non-toxic and which do not produce any recalcitrant intermediates. Commercial success of a natural pigment is dependent on the investment made to obtain the final product, its regulatory approval and its influence in the market. Many microbial pigments are rendered useless because of their instability against ambient conditions and have short shelf life. There are various techniques available that can produce a more stable natural pigment, which has a higher shelf life and market value in terms of the cost-effective stability measures taken. Hence research on natural pigments should focus on obtaining a wider variety of hues, using pigments with health benefits, increasing pigment shelf life, and lowering production costs because world without colour is unimaginable!


Ms. Meera Vignesh

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