In the last two decades, the number of people in Mexico regularly consuming processed foods that contain synthetic additives has grown dramatically. While many synthetic additives are safe in small quantities, they provide no nutritional value and some studies suggest they can be toxic in large amounts.
To increase the nutritional value of these foods and reduce the risks associated with some synthetic additives, researchers from Mexico and the UK have found a new, environmentally friendly method of producing two natural pigments, phycocyanin (a shade of blue) and phycoerythrin ( a shade of red), on a large scale. This Newton-funded project uses microalgae to produce these pigments which can then be used as natural additives in the food and drink industry. The process generates valuable byproducts that are also beneficial for health and nutrition.
In Mexico, spirulina has been consumed as food since pre-Hispanic times. It is also a source of the natural pigment phycocyanin. Phycocyanin and phycoerythrin have antioxidant and nutraceutical properties. This efficient, safe and simple technology only uses a small amount of energy, minimising the environmental impact, allowing for the re-use of water and making the most of the biomass to yield a range of high quality, nutrionally valuable products.
Having shown that it is possible to produce these natural pigments on a large scale, the research will benefit the Mexican agro-industry, supporting the development of a sustainable industry based on high value, non-toxic microalgal products and by-products that also provide consumers with added nutritional value. The commercialisation of these products would extend the project’s impact beyond Mexico and the UK to support a global market.
"The phycopigments project has demonstrated that substantial savings in the costs of algal processing and biorefining are possible using membrane technology."
Dr Robert Lovitt, Director, Membranology Ltd
Phycopigments: Novel manufacturing methods for high value pigment products from microalgae
Project leads: Dr Robert Lovitt, Director, Membranology Ltd and Professor Eugenia J. Olguín, Head of Research Group, INECOL
Delivery partners: Innovate UK and INECOL