Brazilian scientists develop a natural pitaya-based colorant


Researchers at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) have developed a pitaya-based colorant – a clean, vegan, and healthy alternative to shades of red, violet, and pink. The product was developed from the Hylocereus polyrhizus variety, which has red skin and pulp.

The colorant made from pitaya is a promising option for the use of cochineal carmine, the natural red dye and pigment most used by industries. The carmine is produced from an insect and, therefore, is being rejected by the plant-based market. It also has allergenic properties and needs to be labeled specifically as “carmine” or “cochineal” extract on ingredient labels.

The pitaya colorant is also an advantageous option when compared to beetroot, the only widely used alternative to the red color besides cochineal carmine. Unlike the one made from beets, the coloring made from pitaya does not present an aroma or flavor that requires additional processes for its neutralization. Beetroot has geosmin and pyrazine, molecules that give it an earthy flavor, and the various industrial processes required to bypass this effect are dominated by a few large companies.

“It is an input with very interesting characteristics for the food and cosmetics markets,” says one of the creators of the novelty, the researcher and project coordinator Guilherme Julião Zocolo.

The color of the product developed by EMBRAPA is impressive, as it offers different shades of red, violet, and pink. The food engineer at EMBRAPA Agroindústria Tropical, Fernando Abreu, explains that the pitaya fruit has a high industrial pulp yield, greater than 65%. According to him, another advantage is that for industrial processing, it is enough to resize equipment already used by the fruit pulp industries.

He points out that the pitaya colorant gives an attractive color, which, when used in dairy products, resembles the one from strawberries. The industrial production process of the dye developed at EMBRAPA uses membrane microfiltration technology. It is a more complex process and it has the advantage of providing a much higher yield in concentration – although it represents a higher cost. “The more concentrated, the lower the transport cost and greater operational ease,” he says.

Green chemistry, bioeconomy, and sustainability
The process for obtaining the colorant has completed a pilot scale and is ready to be upgraded to a technological scale with companies interested in its production. According to researcher Ana Paula Dionísio, from EMBRAPA Agroindústria Tropical, the dye follows the principles of Green Chemistry.

This technology opens the path for the creation of a market niche, as observed by researcher Guilherme Julião Zocolo. He believes that the product creates great opportunities to add value and income for the farmers and the industries.

“The development of the dye is based on bioeconomy, in which natural resources and high technology act in tandem to create more sustainable products and services,” says Zocolo. For the researcher, a great advantage of the production process is that it can use pitayas unsuited for the table fruit market, with the full use of its peels. Another relevant issue is the replacement of imported natural dyes with these same characteristics. “This technology opens a window of opportunity for structuring the chain.”

“The use of production systems that meet the demands of the industry should have a positive impact on small, medium, and large rural producers in the semi-arid region [in Brazil],” adds Ana Dionísio. As she explains, the pitaya colorant may become a new source of job creation, income, and development in the Northeastern region of the country, heavily hit by periods of drought. The researcher points out that pitaya can be cultivated for nine months of the year and is a cactus that has easy growth.