Earlier this month, the agency was informed of four beverage stores selling drinks using butterfly peas as a colourant, and as such launched an inspection into this.
The stores involved were: Coffee Alley, The Alley, ShareTea and Tao Cup. As a whole, the stores had been using butterfly peas as a food colouring for six different beverages.
A total of 97 food service outlets were investigated overall, covering over 4,800 products and over 14,300 ingredients before it was concluded that the use of butterfly peas as a natural food colouring was legal.
Further investigation on the plant is still pending, so as of now directly using it as a food or beverage item has been deemed illegal, and is punishable under the Act Governing Food Safety and Sanitation by a fine from NT$60,000 (US$1,934) up to NT$200 million (US$6.4mn)
“The blue butterfly pea is not a traditional food item, and may be used as a natural food colouring agent, but must only be added in the minimum possible amount to reach the targeted dyeing purpose. It may not be used as a regular food ingredient,” said the Department of Health in a formal statement.
“In order to prevent confusion in the industry and for consumers, the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has be requested to help perform a food safety analysis on the blue butterfly pea plant, as well as the usage limits.”
In a separate statement, the department’s Food and Drug division chief Wang Ming-li said that: “Pregnant women are advised not to consume this plant as it contains compounds that may have uterine and hormonal effects.”
Why the sudden fear of butterfly pea?
The butterfly pea plant has long been used in food and beverage preparations in countries such as India, South America and South East Asia as it is believed to carry a range of health benefits including anti-ageing, anti-oxidation and anti-inflammation.
That said, past research has shown that consumption of the seeds or roots can also lead to nausea, diarrhea and diuresis.
This can be viewed as either medically purposeful or as side effects, according to National Taiwan University College of Medicine Graduate Institute of Toxicology professor Jiang Chih-kang.
“The pharmaceutical effects are strongest in the seeds, pods and root areas of the plant,” Jiang told Common Health.