Business

Out of the blue: Japanese firm concocts colored chocolate, tea and sake with help of Lao knowhow

by Norihisa Sawaki

Nna/kyodo

A Japanese firm is venturing into the food business, producing chocolate, candy, tea and sake, all colored blue, with the help of farmers in Laos and Thailand to create a market for colored food around the globe.

Tsujiko Co., a manufacturer of LED lighting devices and plant factory systems, has succeeded in extracting blue pigment for such uses from organically grown butterfly peas.

Its blue sake was served at a banquet for the leaders of five nations in the Mekong region, including Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, in Tokyo last October, when they were hosted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said Tsujiko President Akihisa Tsuji.

The Japanese company began diversifying its business in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008, developing food ingredients as part of efforts to tap the agriculture and food markets.

Through its self-developed processing technologies, including low-temperature drying and nonheated sterilization for natural ingredients, Tsujiko has produced five types of colored powder for food and beverages — blue, pink, yellow, light green and brown — using plants and herbs grown in Laos.

Such powder has been developed in two joint projects with the Laotian government and state-backed entities since 2015, supported by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the official development aid body known as JICA.

Blue-colored food items are sold at Wattay International Airport in Vientiane and at a duty-free shop on the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge that links the capital to Nong Khai, a border town in Thailand. A 12-piece package of Vientiane Blue chocolate sells for $12, according to Tsuji.

Tsuji searched for farmland suiting butterfly pea cultivation in an agrochemical- and fertilizer-free environment in the two countries and has secured tracts of farmland totaling 7 hectares in three locations in Laos and one in Thailand by partnering with local farmers. All the sites are for organic agriculture, he said in an interview in Laos.

Tounjai, a farmer in his 20s in a village in Champasak province on the southern tip of Laos bordering Cambodia and Thailand, has a field of 7 hectares, of which 2 hectares are used to raise butterfly peas.

Tsujiko collects butterfly pea flowers from the four locations and dries and processes them into food pigment powder for shipment to Japan via Thailand every few months. He began selling colored powder and related products like blue tea leaves online last year.

Thanks to sales of butterfly pea flowers, the farmer’s income rose 60 to 70 percent, allowing him to build a small house on a site at his home, he said.

Tsujiko, founded in 1965 in Koka, Shiga Prefecture, aims to expand sales of such powder to Europe and the United States as health food ingredients.

It is also studying possible applications for extracts from the flowers, possibly to manage blood sugar and neutral fat. Extract from holy basil, from which the brown coloring powder is produced, may contribute to reducing blood pressure and preventing obesity, Tsuji said.

To reduce production costs, the firm plans to build a factory close to the farmland in 2020 while applying for international certificates and seeking regulatory approval from authorities in each market.

In Europe and the United States, demand for matcha, a type of green tea in Japan that is treated as a general tea powder on those continents, is booming as consumers favor it as a healthy plant-based ingredient, according to Tsuji.

Tsujiko, which has created a green powder by mixing the blue powder from butterfly peas with yellow powder from turmeric, hopes to tap growing demand for it on top of the international matcha boom in the belief that its “fully natural powder” can replace conventional coloring agents, he added.

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