Office of Research

Kraft, U of I announce new research collaboration to affordably derive food colors from corn

Published November 6, 2014

URBANA, Ill. – Building on a long-standing relationship of innovation and cooperation, the University of Illinois and Kraft Foods Group, Inc., this week announced a new research collaboration focused on developing affordable food colors derived from natural sources.

The project will focus on the economic and technical feasibility of extracting food colors from corn and incorporating them into food and beverages. The three-year project will be broken into two phases, bringing together a wide range of interdisciplinary talent and technical expertise within the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, including the Departments of Crop Sciences, Food Science and Human Nutrition, Agricultural and Consumer Economics, and Agricultural and Biological Engineering.

Kraft Foods is providing $1.4 million in funding to the College of ACES for the research project as well as an additional $150,000 for fellowships for the university. 

“We are always looking for ways to offer choices and remain relevant to consumers’ changing needs,” said Chuck Davis, Executive Vice President, Research, Development, Quality and Innovation for Kraft. “This includes everything from improved nutrition to simpler ingredients. We have made great progress but it truly is a long-term journey. That’s why we’re excited to announce our collaboration with the U of I that approaches the research process in such an innovative way.”

Jack Juvik, a U of I crop sciences professor of plant physiology and principal investigator for the project, said maize (corn) was recommended to Kraft as an economically feasible source for food colors as ingredients in many packaged foods and beverages.

“Looking at the economics, corn has a sophisticated supply chain that allows it to go into many different products. This is a value-added opportunity for the industry; it’s not just a special product grown for colors,” Juvik said. “It’s also a good vehicle because there is a lot of corn grown already, and producers know how to grow and process it. We have to design the data to see what kind of recovery we can get and to figure out the forms that are most appropriate for foods, as well as their stability in foods.”

Juvik also explained that the naturally-occurring compounds, anthocyanins, in corn would be used as the source of food coloring.

Anthocyanins are pigments found in the tissues of plants (leaves, roots, stems, flowers) that impart red, blue, and purple colors. In the Kraft and U of I project, researchers will look at the anthocyanins in the pericarp or outer portion of the kernel of corn, especially in “purple corn,” or “Indian corn” lines, which have been a staple food for humans for thousands of years.

“Our end goal is to develop cost-effective red and purple food colors derived from corn to deliver on some consumers’ preference for ingredients from natural sources, said Nigel Kirtley, Vice President, Research and Supplier Integration at Kraft. The outcomes of this research could also provide American farmers with another crop opportunity and highlight new ways the food industry and academia can collaborate in mutually beneficial ways.”

Along with Juvik, the rest of the interdisciplinary team is made up of Elvira de Meija, a professor of food science and human nutrition; Vijay Singh, a professor of food and bioprocess engineering; and Gary Schnitkey, a professor of agricultural economics. The team will be evaluating several maize lines to look at the composition and determine what lines contain the most anthocyanins, what forms have stability in food, environmental factors and how they influence color and stability, costs related to extraction, and what processing techniques will be the most effective at removing the pericarp and retaining co-products that feed into current co-product streams. The economic potential of using colors derived from corn in food and beverages will also be determined.

“We will do tests in the laboratory and the field and determine the economic feasibility of this,” Juvik said. “It is a preliminary study that could lead to something very big.”

This collaborative effort serves to improve U of I faculty engagement with Kraft Foods and the food processing industry, to promote a pipeline for U of I graduates to explore internship and career opportunities with Kraft, and to pave the way for future research opportunities between the company and the university.

Kraft and the U of I have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship for many years spanning a number of disciplines from undergraduate, graduate and faculty support to research partnerships and apprentice programs,” said Davis. “This project is a great continuation of what has been a long-standing heritage of innovation and cooperation between these two great organizations.” 

Over the years, Kraft has provided undergraduate scholarships for students from under-represented groups, fellowships in nutritional sciences and health and wellness, an endowed professorship made possible by a $1 million grant in 2006, as well as College of ACES advisory committee participation.

News Source:

Jack Juvik, 217-333-1966