Scientists at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in the US have determined that the colour-imparting compound in Beluga black lentils is a natural pigment known as an anthocyanin.
Anthocyanins are the source of the blue, purple and red colour of berries, grapes and some other fruits and vegetables.
These pigments also function as antioxidants, believed to protect the human body from oxidative damage that may lead to heart disease, cancer and ageing.
Foods designed to tackle heart health are set to grow 7.6 per cent in the UK market, according to Datamonitor, to reach sales of £145 million in the UK alone by 2007. This is second only to gut health in terms of purpose categories.
Ingredients spearing this market cover a wide range. Tea, for example, the second most consumed beverage in the world is believed to lower cholesterol levels and protect against heart attacks.
And while natural ingredients have been used as colouring agents in foods for some time, Frost & Sullivan estimates that there is significant potential for growth. The colouring foodstuffs market is currently experiencing growth of an estimated 10 per cent to 15 per cent, driven by consumer interest in natural products, outstripping the base line growth of the European colours market in general valued at €195 million in 2001.
Implying potential barrier to growth, anthocyanins, however, are highly dependent on acidity and lose their colour in conditions of low acidity.
Having identified the healthful compound - delphinidin-3-O-(2-O-beta-D-glucopyranosyl-alpha-L-arabinopyranoside) - researchers at ARS led by Gary R. Takeoka are currently investigating the use of Beluga black lentils and other legumes as "candidate ingredients for an array of new, healthful and great-tasting snacks."
The team said they are working to create a crispy, low-calorie, low-fat lentil snack.