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chemical engineering

The color of meat

Coloring for food produced by the fungus Monascus has new production technique

EDUARDO CESARBeauty is fundamental, as poet Vinicius de Moraes used to say about women. The phrase is also followed to the letter by the food industry, which resorts to several synthetic and natural additives to improve the appearance of the products and attract the consumer. One of them, used to intensify the red color of meat, sausages and poultry-based cold cuts and also as a condiment, is obtained from some species of the Monascus fungus. The production of this coloring, long known to the peoples of Asia, is concentrated today in the hands of the Chinese, who export it to European countries, and they are supposed to standardize and clean the product to add value to it. In Brazil, the development of the process for producing pigment from Monascus has been going on since 1999, in a partnership project between a company called Germinal and the Chemical Engineering Department of the Polytechnic School (Poly) of the University of São Paulo (USP), funded by FAPESP under the Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE). The results have already yielded the registration of a patent with the National Institute of Industrial Property (INPI).

Cochineal and hemoglobin
“The idea of producing the coloring in Brazil arose because the company saw in developing the process for getting the product a good market opportunity”, reports Roberto Ricardo Taube, Germinal’s industrial director. At the time, the company used to supply the ingredients used in the production of curd cheese and cheeses and sold to the cold storage plants colorings made from cochineal, the active principle obtained from the body of the female of the insect of the same name, and from hemoglobin, taken from the blood of the slaughtered animals. But these two sources of red pigments showed limitations. The price of cochineal, imported from Peru, used to oscillate a lot. Today, the price is stable, in the range of US$ 6 a kilo, but it once reached US$ 34, at the end of the 1990s. And hemoglobin showed microbiological problems in a few batches.

This was the context in which Germinal turned to Professor Beatriz Vahan Kilikian, from the Chemical Engineering Laboratory at Poly-USP, with the proposal for cultivating the fungus on a substrate based on cassava, a raw material found on a large scale in the country, to replace the rice used in the Asiatic countries. The researchers accepted the challenge, and also cultivated the fungus in a rice-based medium, so as to compare the results. In the two situations, the synthesis of the pigments by the fungus is started by the release of yellow and orange colored molecules, which afterwards are transformed into a red-colored pigment. “Although the process has been known for ages in the East, the hygiene conditions for getting the product do not follow strict rules”, says Beatriz.The first step for starting to begin to run the project was to select species of Monascus that were efficient as to cell growth and the production of the red color. When the team of researchers, made up also by Professor Aldo Tonso and by students for a master’s degree Harm Daenekas Petrola Jorge, Rogério Rodrigues and Gisele Yurie Miyashira, decided to produce the fungus on a pilot scale, they realized that there was no equipment on the market for cultivation in a semi-solid medium based on cassava, or even on rice.

Comparative tests to get data and to expand the scale of the process, a reactor for fermentation had to be designed and built, and fitted with a system for shaking and cooling to make it possible to remove the heat and homogenize the cultivation medium, and also to supply oxygen in sufficient quantity to provide for the growth of the fungus and the production of pigments. The coloring is extracted after a process of drying and grinding. In one of the latest tests, carried out in Germinal’s laboratory in October, in the city of Cabreúva (SP), the colorings from cassava and rice were compared with the commercial variety, sold under the name of Biored. To do so, Taube, accompanied by the researchers, used an industrial recipe for making mortadella. Divided into three, the recipe was given the additives in the same quantities, to assess the fixation of the coloring in the final product. The pigment from rice cultivated in USP’s laboratory came out with a color that was very close to that of the commercial product. The one from cassava, though, showed a color that was a bit lighter, so that new tests will be done until the researchers arrive at the ideal pigment. In the assessment of the research group, the best results were obtained with the associated use of cassava and rice.

Taube says that the company intends to produce the coloring from Monascus as a way of replacing the imported version. Before that, a study of economic viability, suggested by USP, should be carried out, with the support of the Technological Researches Institute (IPT), to implement the project on a commercial scale. The final decision, though, depends of the endorsement of the American parent company, since in May this year Germinal was bought by ISF – Food Ingredients, an American company based in the city of San Diego, in California.Germinal started its activities in 1993, in Diadema (SP). It markets some 2,500 formulations of food additives for companies from various segments, scattered over Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. Figures from the Brazilian Association of Food Industries (Abia) indicate that the Brazilian consumption of food colorings is in the order of 500 tons a year, with a turnover of some R$ 5 million. Germinal holds about 15% of this market, which corresponds to 75 tons.

The Project
Production of Pigments by Monascus spin Semi-Solid Fermentation (nº 99/11567-2); Modality Small Business Innovation Research Project (PIPE); Coordinator Beatriz Vahan Kilikian USP; Investment R$ 207,806.00 and US$ 43,565.00