The Future of Natural Food Colouring is Better for People and the Planet

Synergia Biotech’s quest to mitigate harmful emissions had surprising, and edible, results

While blue foods and drinks make for Instagram-worthy photos, it’s not something that many adults actually want to eat. Humans are evolutionarily inclined to avoid blue foods, and nowadays blue food is associated with unnatural dyes and artificial flavourings. The team at Synergia Biotech in Calgary, Alberta is about to change that with a technology that helps to mitigate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and produces a natural blue pigment that is safe, and healthy, for consumption.

“We are trying to push the envelope by creating these technologies that both help the environment and produce a really valuable product,” says Angela Kouris, CEO and Co-Founder of Synergia Biotech. “We are trying to make this product more accessible to industry for the environment.”

Synergia Biotech is an energy bioengineering group at the University of Calgary that set out to develop a technology to mitigate CO2 emissions. They discovered a process using algae (cyanobacteria), and later discovered a way to extract a natural blue pigment (phycocyanin). While working with the Creative Destruction Lab— a mentorship program within U of C’s Haskayne School of Business— on a market analysis, they determined that the largest potential market for the pigment would be the food and beverage industry.

“Some of these big [colour manufacturing] companies have pressure to switch from chemical and synthetic products to natural products,” Kouris says. “In North American markets, it’s certainly consumer demand for everything natural. There have been a lot of studies that have pointed to all kinds of potential toxic effects of chemical colourants. In Europe, there is a consumer push but also a regulatory side. A lot of these colours have been banned and there’s a legal aspect of having to actually replace chemical coloring with natural products.”

The pigment can be used in everything from brightly coloured foods including candy, liquor, and desserts, and also has potential health properties for nutraceutical applications. The technology also introduces algae farming as an agriculture stream in Canada, and has brought a valuable agricultural product to a market with the potential to be an international provider.

The company is still in the research and development (R&D) phase, moving towards early commercialization within the next year. 

“We’ve found a way to turn a product that is needed in the food industry into something that’s now also a CO2 mitigation strategy,” Kouris says. “We’re helping the environment by removing CO2 from the atmosphere, and then making a valuable product which is ultimately better for consumers.”

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