‘Encouraging’: Pigment-rich extracts from cactus show natural color potential

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images / Neydtstock
© Getty Images / Neydtstock
Orange-yellow pigments from cactus pear (Opuntia megacantha) may offer a water-soluble natural alternative for use in food products, says a new study from researchers in Argentina and Colombia.

Spray dried encapsulated pigments called betaxanthins have the potential to not only be used as natural food colors, but may also offer functional properties because of their fiber content and antioxidant potential, according to findings published in Food Research International.

“These results are certainly encouraging to develop a cost-effective natural colorant that would be of more attraction to product developers,”​ wrote scientists from the National University of Santiago del Estero-CONICET and the Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

A demand for natural

Colorful cupcakes © Getty Images RuthBlack
© Getty Images / RuthBlack

The global food colors market is predicted to reach $3.75 billion in 2022, according to Markets and Markets, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 8% between 2016 and 2022. Natural colors occupying the largest slice of the market, it added.

Orange cactus pear has the potential to be a source for natural pigments, with its betaxanthins. These include indicaxanthin and gamma–aminobutyric acid-betaxanthin, which are yellow-orange pigments. They also exhibit antioxidant properties, explained the researchers.


To test their applicability for the food industry, the researchers encapsulated betaxanthin-rich extracts from Opuntia megacantha​ fruit via spray drying or ionic gelation using a mixture of maltodextrin-cactus cladode mucilage and sodium alginate, respectively.

The data indicated that both encapsulation techniques improved the stability of the pigments compared to a basic cactus pulp, but the most stable pigment encapsulation method was the spray-dried capsules, particularly at higher moisture levels.

The researchers also reported that the capsules contained some dietary fiber, which “represents a nutritional strategy for the development of health-promoting food ingredients.”

They concluded: These results provided evidence that betaxanthins from ​Opuntia megacantha have the potential to be used as natural pigments, soluble in water, with functional properties for the food industry.”

Source: Food Research International
Volume 111, Pages 423-430, doi: 10.1016/j.foodres.2018.05.058
“Encapsulation of cactus (​Opuntia megacantha) betaxanthins by ionic gelation and spray drying: A comparative study”
Authors: M.C. Otálora et al.

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