When I was a kid, we had a joke that there was no such thing as blue food. Blueberries don’t count because they are actually purple. The truth is there aren’t that many blue food colours, and natural blue food colours are very rare. Spirulina extract is one of the few natural blue colours.
I wanted to write a post Spirulina because earlier this year, Mars Corporation made a successful petition to the U.S. F.D.A. to approve it for colouring candy and gum.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is announcing that Mars, Inc., has filed a petition proposing that the color additive regulations be amended to provide for the safe use of spirulina blue, an extract made from the biomass of Anthrospira platensis (spirulina), to color candy and chewing gum.1
Spirulina is a blue-green cyanobacteria. It occurs naturally in freshwater habitats in Africa, Asia and South America. It is also cultivated in shallow ponds all over the world, including in the U.S.
Spirulina contains chlorophyll and phycobilins. These chemicals absorb sunlight and play a role in photosynthesis. The phycobilins found in spirulina are blue. The chlorophyll is green, and together they give spirulina its characteristic blue-green color.
In general, the following steps describe the production of spirulina extract:
- The spirulina is grown, harvested, rinsed, washed, and spray dried;
- The dried spirulina biomass is soaked in water to extract the water-soluble proteins;
- The extract is filtered and stabilized;
- The output from the filtering process is the colour additive spirulina extract.
The U.S. petition is for the use of spirulina in candy and chewing gum. These are the most common uses. In fact, in the U.K., spirulina has been used to replace Brilliant Blue in Smarties.3
Spirulina (but not the colour extract) is also commonly sold as a health food supplement. It usually contains high levels of protein, essential fatty acids, B vitamins, and vitamins C, D and E. It also has high levels of potassium and other minerals.
Health Issues / Side Effects:
During cultivation, contaminates called microcystins can sometimes be found. These can cause liver damage, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, weakness, thirst, rapid heartbeat, shock, and even death.
Most of the time, manufactures carefully screen for these contaminates. Don’t use any blue-green algae product that hasn’t been tested and found free of mycrocystins and other contamination.
Currently, in Europe, spirulina is classified as a food (and food ingredient). It is not considered to be a food additive. This means that it does not have an E number.5