Japan firm, Lao farmers promoting “Vientiane Blue” food, beverages

Tounjai, a Lao farmer in his 20s in a village in Champasak Province on the southern tip of Laos bordering Cambodia and Thailand, cultivates butterfly peas for supply to Tsujiko Co., a Japanese firm producing colored food pigment powder to make blue chocolate “Vientian Blue,” as shown in a photo taken on June 19, 2019. (NNA/Kyodo)

By Norihisa Sawaki

PAKSE, Laos, Aug. 28 Kyodo - A Japanese firm is venturing to develop chocolate, candy, herb tea and “sake” rice wine, all colored blue, with the help of farmers in Laos and Thailand, aiming to create a colored food market around the globe.

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

Tsujiko’s blue sake was served at a banquet for the leaders of five nations in the Mekong region, including Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, hosted by their Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Tokyo last October, said Akihisa Tsuji, president of Tsujiko.

The Japanese firm began diversifying its business in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008 that rattled the world economy, developing food ingredients as part of its efforts to tap the agricultural and food markets.

Through its self-developed processing technologies such as low-temperature drying and non-heated sterilization for natural ingredients, Tsujiko has successfully produced five types of colored powder for food and beverages -- blue, pink, yellow, light green and brown -- from various plants, including herbs grown in Laos.

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

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

Tsuji searched for farmland suiting butterfly pea cultivation in an agrochemical- and fertilizer-free environment in the two Southeast Asian 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 with NNA 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 farming 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, selling colored powder and related products like blue tea-leaves online since last year.

Thanks to the sales of butterfly pea flowers to the Japanese firm, the farmer’s income rose by 60 to 70 percent, and he has built a small house on a site at his home, he said.

Tsujiko, founded in 1965 in Koka, Shiga Prefecture, western Japan, aims to expand colored food powder sales to Europe and the United States, too, as ingredients for health food items.

It is studying other applications of extracts from butterfly pea flowers, possibly for blood sugar level adjustment and neutral fat control, while those from holy basil, from which brown color powder is produced, may contribute to reduction in blood pressure and obesity prevention, Tsuji said.

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

Akihisa Tsuji(R), president of Tsujiko Co., and Tounjai(L), a Lao farmer, speak in an interview with NNA in a village in the southern Lao province of Champasak, on June 19, 2019.

In Europe and the United States, demand for “matcha,” which means a type of green tea in Japan but tea powder in general in the two regions, is booming as consumers favor it as a healthy ingredient, particularly of plant origin, according to Tsuji.

Tsujiko, which has created green powder by mixing blue powder from butterfly peas with yellow powder from turmeric, hopes to capture growing green powder demand in line with the global matcha boom in the belief that its “fully natural powder” could replace conventional coloring agents, he added. (NNA/Kyodo)

NNA Report