White beetle inspired natural pigment offers replacement for titanium dioxide

By Nicola Gordon-Seymour

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | Elisa Irmalia
Getty | Elisa Irmalia

Related tags formulation Supplements Pharma Food Regulation Snack functional beverage beverage

Cambridge-based biotech start-up, Impossible Materials, has developed a sustainable cellulose-derived white pigment to replace “unsafe” titanium dioxide (TiO2) across food and pharma industries.

The novel compound, inspired by the white Cyphochilus beetle, offers a 100% natural ingredient at a time when businesses are actively seeking plant-based alternatives, following an EU ban on TiO2​, says Dr Lukas Schertel, CEO & Co-founder at Impossible Materials.

“Producers of plant-based foods and dairy products are under immense pressure to replace TiO2 whilst no high-performance, plant-based solution is available.

“Our material comes with appealing properties for these markets, for example, it is tasteless, and cellulose is already used in plant-based food formulations. It could also be used in higher doses than other white pigments in these segments as it does not affect the formulation properties.”

Circular process

The proprietary compound developed by Impossible Materials mimics the activity of Cyphochilus beetle scales that scatter light giving the insect a bright white colour​.

Plant-based cellulose performs a similar function and is safe for human consumption. It is widely available, biocompatible and easy to process. In addition, it has high opacity and stability, and the circular development process offers a sustainable substitute with superior performance, according to Dr Schertel.

While still in early development, sample testing has demonstrated product performance in wet and dry applications.

Dr Schertel confirms the company is currently working with a number of customers in major healthcare sectors and expects cost-competitive commercial scale production will be achieved by 2024/25.

“We are focused on value generation through putting effort in the circularity of the process and turning waste streams into high value products as well as working closely with customers to solve their pain points,” ​he explains.

“This might challenge time to scale but will improve the techno-economics at scale and the impact (environmental and health) of our products.”


Safety concerns

Titanium dioxide is routinely added to bakery products, soups, broths, sauces, salads, and processed nuts, as well as confectionery and food supplements to make products visually appealing and provide whiteness and opacity​.

However, the European Food Safety Authority (EFS) implemented a ban on TiO​as a food additive ​(E171) ​last year after ruling the compound unsafe due to possible links with inflammation and neurotoxicity​.

Member states have since removed the ingredient from food products, although the UK is standing firm and both the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Food Standards Scotland (FSS) have resisted imposing a similar ban, which creates disruption and complications for manufacturers.

Impossible Materials sees itself as “an enabler​” for plant-based meat, fish, and dairy products, in particular, in the context of current food regulations and trends for sustainable, natural products and is pursuing investment opportunities to scale-up production for commercial purposes.

Dr Schertel confirms: “We are addressing a significant market opportunity for our white pigment product and are predicting this could even become a US$10bn market opportunity just based alone on the growth in plant-based foods adoption and replacing the existing TiO2 demand in food and health sensitive segments.”

Other potential applications include confectionery, food and pharma coatings, make-up, creams, speciality ink, and paint, he adds.

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