- Gingko Bioworks is partnering with natural food colorant maker Phytolon to help the company scale its precision fermentation-created pigments. The partnership will maximize the production efficiency of Phytolon's color-producing yeast strains, the companies said in a written statement.
- Phytolon's palette of natural colors includes yellows, oranges, purples and pinks. The Israel-based colorant company produces betalain pigments — a kind of color naturally occurring in some flowers, fruits and fungi including red beet, Swiss chard and amaranth — through specialized fermentation.
- As artificial food colors fall out of favor with consumers — especially in Europe, where there are stringent regulations for many such ingredients — companies are searching for ways to make natural colors that are as vibrant, stable and inexpensive as their chemistry-enabled counterparts.
Natural colors are one ingredient area that has seen consistent growth. The global natural food coloring market is estimated to be worth almost $2.7 billion by the end of 2027, increasing at a compound annual growth rate of 6.8%, according to Coherent Market Insights. In a 2020 press release from Phytolon, the company said natural colors comprised 69% of the total market.
It makes sense for food tech companies to work toward capitalizing on the opportunity, and the partnership between Ginkgo and Phytolon can take a big step toward that goal. While Phytolon has found a way to produce larger quantities of these yellow, orange, purple and pink pigments found in some plants through precision fermentation, a biotech specialist like Ginkgo can help improve and scale this process. Ginkgo also has connections with companies in the food and cosmetics industries, and can help pave a path for these pigments to be used in products.
Phytolon, which utilizes licensed technology through the Weizmann Institute of Science, has been perfecting its colors and technology since its founding in 2018. In 2020, the company closed a $4.1 million funding round to work toward expanding the reach of its colors.
While many U.S. manufacturers still use artificial colors in their products, there have been movements to transition more toward natural colors. Critics point to studies that signify a connection between artificial food colors and children's behavior as a reason to adopt natural alternatives. Consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest first petitioned the FDA to ban artificial colors in 2008, and has continued to fight for their removal from from the food system. And about six years ago, many major food companies made big plans to transition to all natural colors — but ultimately scaled back because of problems with consumer acceptance of less vibrant products and natural color performance.
In order for natural colors to get wider U.S. adoption, there need to be options readily available that can perform as well or better than the artificial versions. They also need to be at prices similar to their synthetic counterparts. Research and development of a wide array of natural colors can help achieve this goal.
Natural colors tend to not be as resilient to physical changes as artificial ones. A product's format, production process, time sitting on shelf, packaging and other ingredients all can change the way a natural color performs. A variety of natural colors from different sources and made through different processes can ensure that the right color for any need is available. Production methods such as precision fermentation allow a large amount of natural coloring to be created quickly and relatively inexpensively, and it is much more efficient than methods like extraction.