New blue: FDA approves Sensient’s natural color made from butterfly pea flower

Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved butterfly pea flower extract as a color additive in response to a petition by Sensient’s Color Group. The “exceptionally heat stable,” water-soluble ingredient produces shades ranging from bright blues and intense purples to natural greens, depending on the product pH, according to the manufacturer.
  • FDA has approved the extract for a range of applications including alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages; liquid coffee creamers; ice cream and frozen dairy desserts; soft and hard candy; yogurt and chewing gum.
  • Finding an all-around satisfactory natural blue has long been a focus of food and beverage manufacturers, as many consumers seek to avoid artificial ingredients that are otherwise tough to match in their vibrancy and stability.

Dive Insight:

A product more than 10 years in the making, Sensient describes its butterfly pea flower extract as the first plant-derived natural blue source approved by the FDA. It produces what the Milwaukee-based manufacturer describes as a “bright denim shade” for products with a pH above 3.8, and a deep purple shade in low-pH food and beverages such as sport drinks.

The petals of the flower, which has a scientific name of Clitoria ternatea and is native to equatorial Asia, are commonly used to make caffeine-free herbal tea, Sensient noted. Chefs, along with food and beverage makers, have also used the plant as a vibrant coloring for dishes. To win approval as a color additive in the U.S., Sensient said it worked to meet FDA requirements around ultrafiltration and concentration.

“While butterfly pea flower is relatively ubiquitous in parts of Southeast Asia, we discovered that the petals commonly grown for other uses were not ideally suited for the manufacture of standardized natural colors,” Mike Geraghty, president of Sensient Colors LLC, said in a written statement. “Through our ‘seed to shelf’ agronomy program, we invested to develop higher pigment petals in order to produce a highly stable, safe, and clean blue for modern food and beverage manufacturers.”

According to Sensient’s petition, it developed the color additive by combining demineralized water with pesticide-free dried butterfly pea flower petals, running it through an ultrafiltration process and concentrating and pasteurizing the liquid. The resulting extract is 42% to 62% water, with anthocyanins as the main coloring component.

The ingredients industry has long been challenged to develop a natural blue coloring for food. The quest has been stymied by ensuring the stability and vibrancy in products that may be exposed to a range of conditions and shelf-life requirements. That said, the pace of innovation has picked up, with Sensient’s butterfly pea flower extract just the latest in a series of promising natural blue colors.

Research funded by Mars Wrigley determined that a pigment in red cabbage could be used to create a long-lasting and stable natural blue color for food. Spirulina, a single-cell algae, has also shown promise. In 2019, GNT Group debuted a range of high-intensity blue powders based on spirulina, and Sensient developed its own algae-derived coloring just a couple years prior. Some natural blues also grow on trees. Archer Daniels Midland’s Wild Flavors and Specialty Ingredients has the patent on huito blue, a natural coloring that comes from a tropical fruit.

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