UA Food Science Researchers Seek Alternative to Artificial Food Dye

By Jane Incao

Razorback Reporter

Food Science doctoral candidates are working to find a stable natural food color to replace artificial food dyes such as Red 40.

The interest in finding a replacement for artificial food dyes is largely because of consumer demand for natural food products, said Nate Stebbins, who is completing a Ph.D. in Food Science.

“A lot of major companies are saying they want to switch over to natural colorants,” Stebbins said.

Interest in finding alternatives to artificial food dyes began after pediatric allergist Benjamin Feingold published findings from the University of Pittsburgh in 1973. His findings suggested a link between artificial dyes and hyperactive behavior. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has published reports that do not link artificial food dyes to attention deficit hyperactivity disorders in children.

Aside from suspected links to ADHD, consumers also avoid artificial food coloring because many dyes are derived from byproducts of petroleum, a “mineral sourced” coloring option that the FDA website lists as safe to consume.

“People think they bring in a barrel of oil in a chemistry lab and go from there, but it’s several steps of purification before they get to the chemicals that they start with, and then work from there,” Stebbins said.

He agrees with FDA reports that food dyes made from minerals are as safe to consume as those made from plants.

“You can take good stuff out of a bad thing and bad stuff out of a good thing,” Stebbins said. “There’s cyanide in apples, but that doesn’t mean eating an apple will kill you.”

However, the market demand for natural alternatives is powerful reason to pursue research to find natural food coloring options.

The absence of artificial food colors are important in buying decisions, 42 percent of global responders said in a 2015 Nielsen study.

In 2015, organic food sales in the United States amounted to roughly $39.75 billion, according to Statista, an internet-based statistics firm.

To try and meet this demand, Stebbins and other students have been using extracts from fruits and vegetables such as black carrots, cabbage and plums to try to create a stable, natural red color. In addition to being a natural alternative, extracts from fruits and vegetables also provide antioxidants that synthetic alternatives do not.

The challenge with creating natural food dyes is not a difficulty drawing vibrant colors from fruits and vegetables, Stebbins said, but finding a formula that’s as stable as the synthetic options. Natural colors do not stay vibrant for as long as artificial dyes like Red 40, and need to be adjusted for each different food product in which they’re used.

Success in finding a stable natural replacement for Red 40 could mean a patent on the formula for the UofA, and the ability to sell it to companies looking to take synthetic food dyes off of their labels.

Luke Howard, a professor in Food Science started this project three years ago. He was not available for interview.