Monica Giusti, a professor in food science and technology, developed a natural blue dye for M&Ms. Credit: Michael Lee | Outreach and Engagement Editor

An Ohio State professor has good news for candy lovers: M&Ms are getting a nutritional upgrade.

Monica Giusti, a professor in food science and technology, has been developing and researching natural food colorants for more than 20 years. On Nov. 6, the manufacturing company of M&Ms and many popular candy brands, Mars Inc., patented Giusti’s method of extracting anthocyanins — pigments that give red, purple and blue plants their coloring.

In the beginning of 2016, Mars Inc. announced in a press release a project described as a “five-year effort” to remove all synthetic dyes from its products. Before research by Giusti’s lab, there was no method of anthocyanin extraction that produced this specific blue pigment, and its research helped Mars Inc. reach its natural dye goal.

Anthocyanins are difficult to work with, Giusti said, and two main problems come with the development of natural blue pigment — the scarcity of blue plants in nature and the difficulty of preserving blue pigment during anthocyanin extraction. When extracting anthocyanins from blue plants, the pigment will often present as a different color.

“Blueberries are kind of blue, but if you were to make a blueberry juice, the juice will not be blue,” Giusti said.

Giusti’s work is allowing companies such as Mars Inc. to incorporate real nutritional value into foods that are typically perceived as unhealthy.

“The real beauty is that the pigments that we extract from nature tend to be those phytochemicals that make plants good for us,” Giusti said.

Giusti said the wide use of food colorant makes the industry’s transition to utilizing natural colorant imperative.

“We say that we are what we eat … And we have heard that we should consume more fruits and vegetables [but] this transition is very slow,” she said. “If we could incorporate the benefits from fruits and vegetables into our regular diet, we could move faster towards a healthier population.”

The research is likely to infiltrate the food industry as a whole, Giusti said, also noting that replacing synthetic dyes with natural dyes will integrate fruits and vegetables in people’s diets in an entirely new way, and they will not even notice a difference in taste.

Mars Inc. president and CEO Grant F. Reid said in the press release the company’s consumers are the motivation behind its pledge.

“Our consumers are the boss and we hear them. If it’s the right thing to do for them, it’s the right thing to do for Mars,” he said.