Imagine eating purple bread, purple vinegar or blue noodles. Now imagine that they are good for you. Food scientists in Australia have come up with natural food colours that also give a boost to the health.
Investigating opportunities for food manufacturers in the growing health trend market, the scientists are working on a range that serves a dual purpose. Meeting the trend away from synthetic and towards natural ingredients, and the desire to consume products with an added health benefit.
"Children in particular enjoy eating colourful food and purple is extremely popular so we are not only catering to that trend but also parent's concern that their children eat healthy, natural products," said Dr Izabela Konczak, plant products development manager at Food Science Australia.
So where does the answer lie? In a member of the polyphenolic, and disease-fighting, group of compounds, anthocyanins.
The red, purple and blue pigments, called anthocyanins, give berries, flowers, fruits and vegetables their colours. These pigments can be extracted and used as colorants in foods including noodles, jam, beverages, yoghurt and ice-cream.
"Perhaps the most exciting things about anthocyanins are their strong antioxidant abilities and other health-promoting properties. Scientists are currently investigating anthocyanins' abilities to lower cholesterol, prevent blood clotting and defend cells against dangerous carcinogens," added Dr Konczak.
The researchers, presenting their research at this week's massive biotech exhibition Bio 2003 in the US, are kicking off with research on the natural purple pigments of a type of Japanese sweet potato.
For commercial mass-production of sweet potato cell clusters the challenge for scientists at Food Science Australia is to develop cost-effective ways to grow them and extract the pigments.
"The advantages of growing sweet potato in a lab are that the amount and quality of the pigments can be controlled. This method of growth also eliminates lengthy and seasonal growth periods, the need for large areas of land for crops, and high transport and labour costs," continued Dr Konczak.