The food colouring market has seen a long-term structural shift from synthetic colours to natural sources, driven by consumer demand for clean labels that are free from artificial additives. According to Mintel, the size of the natural colourings market overtook sales of synthetics back in 2011.
Nevertheless, the natural colourings market faces some challenges. Colourings made from carmine, a dye derived from cochineal insects, fail to meet growing demand for vegan products. Meanwhile, colourings from plant-based sources can face stability issues with light, pH and temperature sometimes impacting shade. And, possibly the biggest issue of all, natural colourings are significantly more expensive than synthetic alternatives.
Chromologics, a spin-out from the Technical University of Denmark, has developed a platform that it says will address the ‘main challenges’ facing the natural colouring sector today.
Founded in 2017, Chromologics is a start-up that hopes to set a ‘new benchmark’ for food colourant production. The company was formed by TUD scientists Gerit Tolborg and Anders Ødum after the ‘exciting discovery’ of a novel group of fungal pigments during Tolborg’s PhD work.
Through the use of precision fermentation, the company wants to support a transition from the ‘input-intensive and wasteful use of food resources’ in the colourings sector – unlocking a €4.6bn market opportunity in the process.
The company’s founders envision a future where laboratory-grown natural food colourants replace conventional natural colourants, freeing up arable land for 'crucial' food production and decreasing the use of fertilisers and pesticides.
“Our platform is based on precision fermentation. The platform is scalable, cost-competitive, and responds to the strong market pull for ethical and sustainable sourcing of novel natural food colorants,” Tolborg, the company’s CEO, told FoodNavigator.
“With the trends of plant-based eating and the focus on sustainability, we believe that we can have a big impact in that segment from the start. Carmine cannot be used in vegan products and some other natural red colorants struggle with challenges in performance.
“Our ambition is to grow Chromologics into the market leader of fermented natural colour solutions.”
Chromologics’ flagship product is a natural red food colouring produced using fungal fermentation.
“It is produced by a fungus, which makes it compliant with the dietary requirements of broad consumer bases such as kosher, halal, and vegan diets,” Tolborg told us. “We use our proprietary fermentation protocol, which includes upstream fermentation and some simple downstream processing steps.”
These downstream steps mean that the company is able to deliver a colouring that is non-allergenic, she revealed.
“After the fermentation is completed, the colourant and the fungus are separated and the colourant is processed. Thanks to the precision fermentation followed by our specific DSP strategy, the resulting natural red colour does not contain any protein residues that could trigger an allergenic response.”
Tolborg is also enthusiastic about the functional properties of the colourant, which is stable under different processing conditions, putting its performance on a par with carmine. This means it is well-suited to a ‘broad range’ of different food applications.
“The fermented natural red has similar stability characteristics as carminic acid. It is pH and temperature stable, does not have any taste or odour, and is water soluble,” she revealed. “Our fermented red is pH stable on a broad range of pHs. We have done successful pilot studies in collagen-casings, which faces harsh pH changes.”
Investment accelerating path to market
Chromologics just closed a €6m seed financing round, securing the backing of investors including Blue Horizon Ventures, Novo Seeds, Nordic Food Tech and The Danish Growth Fund Danish Vækstfonden.
“The completion of our €6m series seed is a blue stamping of our technology and validation of our idea,” Tolborg told us.
Chromologics is currently working to secure regulatory approval in the US and Europe, and the investment is expected to accelerate this as well as other growth efforts. “It means that we can accelerate the regulatory approval, engagement with potential customers, and production scale-up to industrial sizes. That will allow us to have even more conversations with food manufacturing companies and set up pilot trials with our fermented red colorant.”
The company is focused on bringing its fermented red colour to the market ‘as fast as possible’, for the time being at least. However, the funding will also mean Chromologics can begin to look at additional innovation opportunities.
“It will allow us to go back to the lab, work on our formulations,” Tolborg predicted. “We have other interesting products in the pipeline. Our fungus also naturally produces yellow and orange, so in the long term, we envision adding other colours of the rainbow.”