We know spirulina as a superfood with various positive aspects, but few understand what it is and where it came from initially. The Aztecs back in the day appreciated the positive effects of Spirulina on their digestion and consumed it regularly as a dried, flat patty. Because of its anti-carcinogen properties, it was also used to treat radiation sickness in people that were affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. These days, it became popular again due to healthy lifestyle trends. You can find it everywhere in food, cosmetics, and health supplements.
Spirulina is a type of bacteria called cyanobacterium and is often referred as blue-green algae. There are two main species of spirulina which are being processed and used for various applications. These include Arthrospira plantensis and Anthrospira maxima. While many bacteria are known for their pathogenic effects, Arthrospira is primarily known across the world for its potential nutritional value. Just like plants, these cyanobacteria can produce energy from sunlight via the process called photosynthesis. Its cells contain chlorophylls, carotenoids, phycobiliproteins and are rich in vitamins, fatty acids, and antioxidants.
A. Platensis prefers higher temperatures and therefore inhabits tropical and subtropical bodies of water such as Lake Magadi in Kenya and Lake Lonar in India. Aside from being found in nature in these areas, it is also grown commercially for use as a food additive, in dietary supplements, and as whole food.
The bacteria are typically grown in large, lined pools that can either have direct access to light or are placed under large lamps. Maximum growth is achieved between the fourth and fifth day. At that time the bacteria are harvested and dried into a powder. This powder is the starting point for the production of the color blue as a coloring food. The pigment itself, known as C-phycocyanin (C-PC) is extracted from the phycobiliproteins; this step involves cell rupture to release these water-soluble proteins.
EFSA, the regulatory agency of EU countries for food safety has banned the use of synthetic colors in products consumed in EU countries, giving guidance and boosting the use of the natural colors. The Spirulina Blue received approval from the FDA in 2013, which opened a whole new segment for Spirulina products and became one of the most attractive colors globally due to its features and texture. It is primarily used in the food.
Various natural colors have been invented using Spirulina, and many more are yet to come. Its royal blue color shade and brilliant appearance open new possibilities for innovative products connected to current consumer trends.
Due to the high concentration of color, it is an excellent pigment for hard panning applications. From turquoise to violet and even to a dark brown, all shades are possible. In applications with a relatively neutral pH such as dairy products, ice cream, and marshmallow, the use of Spirulina is unlimited.
It is important to remember that this is a color made by nature and there are points to be aware of. The biggest challenge for using C-phycocyanin is in products with a low pH and high temperature, typically seen in the confectionery industry. The characteristics of C-phycocyanin originate from it protein. Due to the nature of the protein, a denaturation starts at low pH and high temperatures. This phenomenon can be observed in a more turquoise shade or black visible precipitations jelly gum, for example.
To meet this challenge, it’s important to be open for changes in process and recipes. Finding the right solution for each development project makes Spirulina an exciting pigment to work with to create innovative, blue food.