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Bringing blue back
14
May
2014
Martin Michel

In 2007 artificial colourings needed to be replaced by natural ones, but there was no natural dye for blue. When children protested loudly, researchers found the solution in a special type of algae.

The food industry can be accused of many things – but not of failing to do what it can to optimize its products in every detail. For example, the colour spectrum of Smarties, so well known to big and small, suffered for a time from an imperfection: the colourful coatings of these chocolate titbits contained artificial additives.

Smarties have come in pink, mauve, green, yellow, orange, red, and light and dark brown since 1937. Originally they were sold only in England before spreading to other European countries. Blue coloured Smarties were first produced in 1988 and available in a temporary limited edition. But they were so popular that they ultimately became a permanent addition to the other colours in the Smarties tube. Since then some people have felt that certain colours taste better or are somehow different than others. Children have used them to solve their first mathematical equations, and one fan community to make elaborate mosaics.   

The challenge of blue

In 2007 a study was published claiming that artificial food colourings could cause hyperactivity in children. Whether or not these findings would be substantiated – Nestlé was well aware it had to replace artificial colours with natural colours. Especially given the growing trend to diagnose hyperactivity disorders in children.

All but blue

Since there was no natural substitute for artificial blue dye, blue Smarties were removed from the colour range for almost two years. But their fans were as loyal as the verdict of the study was harsh: Kids (and their parents) noticed immediately that their favourite colour was missing. There were boycott calls and strong complaints from disappointed customers who did not want to accept even a temporary solution without blue.

Searching for a natural blue dye

Smarties developers had to search extensively to find a natural blue dye. They discovered that certain blue-green algae contained blue and yellow pigments. Thanks to a special process, the blue extracted from these algae could be used as food colouring. This naturally produced colourant is now also used to dye other foods. 

The comeback

Blue coloured Smarties celebrated their comeback in 2008. And Nestlé’s marketing department made the most of this coup by promoting them in England and Canada with its “Blue is Back” campaign.

Martin Michel

Scientist

Martin started his professional career in 1993 as a biologist at the Inselspital in Bern working on tissue engineering with the aim of repairing cartilage defects.

He joined the Nestlé Research Center in 1995 as microscopist and was involved in improving the efficiency of spray drying of milk. Since 1999 he has headed different groups including food material science, colloid science and natural colours. During this period he set up a program to develop a natural blue from red cabbage that is stable in various foods.

Today, Martin is a group manager at the Nestlé Research Center and heads the Micronutrient Fortification Group. In this role he and his team develop new delivery systems to fortify foods with dietary minerals such as iron and zinc, and vitamins. He likes hiking, rowing and plays guitar, if time allows.

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