Chemical company DIC is partnering with Debut Biotech to use the startup's cell-free biomanufacturing platform to create natural pigments for food colorants and cosmetics, the companies said in a statement. The ingredients are intended to replace synthetic petroleum-derived colorants amid growing consumer demand for more sustainable ingredients that are biodegradable and clean label.
Debut claims its platform can overcome some of the existing barriers to creating all-natural and biodegradable pigments. The obstacles include low yields, post-extraction waste generation and environmental burdens, such as land and water use, that come from using flowers and plants to extract pigments. Volatile weather also can impact output and quality.
Food manufacturers such as General Mills and Kellogg have been attempting to swap out artificial colors for natural options, but progress has been slow. Interest in natural colors is increasing, giving ingredient manufacturers a stronger incentive to find viable alternatives.
Consumers may want clean-label foods but they don’t want to give up the vibrant colors they are used to seeing in baked goods, snacks and beverages. This has created challenges for food makers attempting to switch from synthetic to natural.
Hershey has said it struggled to recreate vibrant reds, greens and other colors that give its Jolly Rancher hard candies their signature brightness using natural colors. Mars tried to swap its artificially colored blue M&Ms for a spirulina-based color, but The New York Times reported in 2016 there was not yet enough natural colorant at the time to fully execute the color conversion.
And after General Mills updated its Trix cereal in 2016 to remove the artificial colors, consumers said the naturally sourced ones were depressing and the flavor was different. As a result, the cereal maker brought back the brightly colored Trix just one year later.
Providing natural colors that closely mimic artificial ones would be a boon for food manufacturers that want to capitalize on the clean-label trend. A Nielsen study showed more than 60% of U.S. consumers cited the absence of artificial colors and flavors as an important factor when making food purchases.
Debut claims its cell-free technology can overcome challenges creating natural ingredients by retaining enzymes and other useful parts of cells while discarding the byproducts that have gotten in the way of achieving the desired pigments. Biomanufacturing involves using biological systems such as animal cells, microorganisms, or in Debut’s case, enzymes to create biomolecules for a variety of applications including food, according to Nutritional Outlook.
"With our advanced cell-free biomanufacturing platform, we’re able to produce color ingredients that are simply not possible with traditional fermentation-based biomanufacturing," Debut Biotech CEO Joshua Britton said in a statement. "Our colors are naturally derived with a fraction of the inputs — less waste and energy — and without the use of petrochemicals. With this approach, we’re able to take on a level of complexity that creates whole new possibilities for the color ingredient landscape across industries."
Debut Biotech recently raised $22.6 million in a Series A funding round led by Material Impact. It plans to use the funds to commercialize its ingredients and introduce new products by expanding to a 26,000-square-foot facility in San Diego, California, and tripling the size of its workforce at sites there and in Atlanta. This would base Debut Biotech's manufacturing in the United States.
Ingredient companies are taking a variety of approaches to creating natural colors. GNT produces Exberry, a brand of coloring made from fruit, vegetables and edible plants such as beetroot and chlorophyll. DDW is working with Fermentalg to develop a natural blue color using microalgae.
The pandemic has been a boon for natural, organic, plant-based and other offerings as consumers look to eat healthier. A survey last year by Beneo, a supplier of functional ingredients derived from chicory roots, beet sugar, rice and wheat, found that 75% of consumers globally said they plan to eat and drink healthier as a result of the pandemic.
As demand for all-things natural continues to increase, color manufacturers will see demand for their services grow. It will likely take a variety of different technologies to not only create the right color but also the quantity that is needed.