Will Natural Food Colors Soon Replace Artificial and Insect-Based Dyes?

A trend in the food dye manufacturing industry has been surfacing recently as consumers become more awareness of the chemical additives in their food. The industry is slowly moving away from artificial and insect-based food dyes and back to traditional natural pigments like those extracted from purple sweet potatoes (PSPs) and purple and black carrots.

In addition to avoiding exposure to potentially harmful synthetic chemicals, naturally-derived food dyes may offer health benefits to consumers.


Stephen T. Talcott, Ph.D., a food chemist at Texas A&M University working with PSPs said, “The natural colors industry for foods and beverages is gaining in value as U.S. and international companies move towards sustainable and affordable crop alternatives to synthetic red colors and red colors derived from insects. In addition to adding eye appeal to foods and beverages, natural colorings add natural plant-based antioxidant compounds that may have a beneficial effect on health.”

Talcott also notes that PSPs contain are mildly anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic.

The potential health benefits are definite pluses for natural food dyes and their benefits even extend beyond this. PSPs are easy to produce and sustainable. Byproducts from the PSP extraction process can be  composted, used for animal feed or become raw materials for biofuel. What’s more, it takes about 2,500 cochineal insects, which are currently used to produce synthetic food colorings and “carmine,” to make just one ounce of cochineal extract that adds coloring to ice creams, yogurts, candy, drinks and other foods, according to the Environmental News Network.

PSPs also offer the best color “stability” which means they provide higher color intensity and a wider range of hues. PSPs can be used to make the most muted shade of pink to a deep, dark imperial purple. They have a neutral flavor as well, making them suitable for a wide range of products.


There are a few drawbacks to the use of PSPs though. It is rather difficult to extract pigment from them, but research teams are currently at work trying to streamline the process. PSPs dyes also have a fairly high price tag right now at around $136 per pound. Although, this price will surely go down once the extraction process becomes easier and farmers begin to grow  more PSPs and similar crops.

This turn back to natural food colorings has the potential to be hugely beneficially, both economically and environmentally. Time will tell though if this industry will become the viable alternative many are hoping for.

Image source: Deidre Woollard / Flickr