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Developing natural food colouring

A number of synthetic food colours have been shown to have undesirable side effects, especially in children. Since 2010, the EU has demanded that selected synthetic dyes should be labelled, and there is a major world demand for natural food colours. Associate Professor Henrik Brinch-Pedersen has been awarded a grant of DKK 12.3 million by the Innovation Fund Denmark to extract dye of black carrots.

2015.01.15 | Lisbeth Heilesen

Associate Professor Henrik Brinch-Pedersen has been awarded a grant of DKK 12.3 million by the Innovation Fund Denmark to develop natural food colouring. Photo: Charlotte Hamann Knudsen.

To meet the increasing demand for natural food colours, the research team intends to increase the content of the natural colorant anthocyanin in black carrots. Photo: Bjarne Jørnsgaard, Chr Hansen.

On a global scale, there is a considerable need to develop natural food colourants, not least because a number of synthetic dyes in food have been shown to cause unwanted side effects – especially among children. Since 2010, the European Union has required the labelling of selected dyes in food products.

Henrik Brinch-Pedersen and his research group at the Section for Crop Genetics and Biotechnology in Flakkebjerg have now set out with other researchers in Denmark and the USA to develop methods that can produce large amounts of the natural pigment anthocyanin, which is found in black carrots (Daucus carota sativus var. Atrorubens).

Until now, the plant breeding method traditionally used to increase the content of anthocyanin has been very slow and has only resulted in limited increases. In addition, our understanding of the way the substance is created in black carrots has only been sparsely described, but studies show that the synthesis is regulated to a large extent by factors at the cellular level that directly regulate how much anthocyanin is produced in the carrot genes.

Associate Professor Brinch-Pedersen and his colleagues have therefore launched a project called New Plant Breeding Technologies (NPBTs) for Bio-Sustainable Production of Natural Colours in Black Carrots. The aim is to find new alternatives to traditional breeding methods and conventional GMOs. The project will identify the key genetic components in anthocyanin synthesis in black carrots to build a comprehensive NPBTs platform and use it to accelerate production of anthocyanin. In other words, to spy on the production secrets of the carrots and improve them.

NPBTs can make it possible to regulate production of the pigment in carrots in ways that do not differ from changes introduced in conventional breeding methods or physical/chemical mutation (and without unwanted side mutations). This has great significance because the plants produced by NPBTs are expected to be less heavily regulated or entirely deregulated compared with plants that are genetically modified using traditional procedures.

In addition to Aarhus University (Flakkebjerg), researchers from the following institutions participate in the project: The Natural History Museum of Denmark at University of Copenhagen (Prof. Tom Gilbert), University of Wisconsin, Dept. Hort., USDA ARS, Vegetable Crops Res. Unit (Prof. Phil Simon), University of Minnesota, Dept. of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development (Prof. Dan Voytas) and the company Chr. Hansen A/S.

Budget: DKK 20.1 million

The Innovation Fund Denmark's grant: DKK 12.3 million.

Duration: 4 years

Contact information

Associate Professor Henrik Brinch-Pedersen
Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
Aarhus University, Denmark
e-mail: hbp@mbg.au.dk, tel. +45 8715 8268

Grant, Knowledge exchange