MAK­ING THE MOST OF THE PITS

Pa. food-col­or­ing startup gives av­o­cado pits new life

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - BUSINESS - By Roger Van Scyoc Cen­tre Daily Times

STATE COL­LEGE, PA. » When Greg Ziegler was help­ing his son de­cide on a science fair project, Ziegler, a pro­fes­sor of food science at Penn State, didn’t con­sult the tea leaves for guid­ance. In­stead, he found the an­swer — and the idea for his fu­ture com­pany — while mak­ing gua­camole.

“I said ‘why don’t we ex­tract this starch from the seed?’ “Ziegler said. “And when we went ahead to look at the starch, we got this bril­liant or­ange color that de­vel­oped.”

Their code or­ange was vex­ing at first, a harm­less lab ac­ci­dent in Ziegler’s kitchen. But as with many other in­ven­tions, one man’s av­o­cado pit was an­other’s golden idea. Or in Ziegler’s case, red, yel­low and or­ange.

“Af­ter a lit­tle while I started to say maybe this or­ange is start­ing to tell me some­thing,”

“We think there’ll be a price ad­van­tage be­cause a lot of these other prod­ucts are ex­tracted from ma­te­ri­als that are al­ready have some value in the mar­ket­place like pa­prika, or turmeric or saffron.” — Greg Ziegler, a pro­fes­sor of food science at Penn State

Ziegler said. “Maybe I should forget about the starch and look at the or­ange — and that’s what we ended up do­ing.”

Ziegler and his team have dis­cov­ered how to cap­ture un­likely col­ors — blood reds to Tang-like or­anges — from av­o­cado seeds, us­ing a process that’s part science-part mir­a­cle of na­ture. Many fruits and veg­eta­bles carry an en­zyme called polyphe­nol ox­i­dase be­sides polyphe­nols, and when ex­posed to air, they be­gin to turn brown due to en­zy­matic re­ac­tions. Ap­ples, for in­stance, with their high con­cen­tra­tion of polyphe­nols, brown up shortly af­ter a bite is taken.

But while av­o­cado flesh re­acts sim­i­larly, it’s what’s in­side that mat­ters. Be­cause of unique sub­strates in their seeds, the re­ac­tions pro­duce a ra­di­ant or­ange color in­stead of browns or blacks. A few tweaks to pH and con­cen­tra­tion can re­sult in dif­fer­ent hues.

The idea has grown into a full-fledged busi­ness, called Persea Nat­u­rals af­ter the genus name of av­o­ca­dos, and has al­ready earned fund­ing

through a uni­ver­sity re­search grant and the school’s Fund for In­no­va­tion.

The com­pany’s brand, called AvoColor, has al­ready tested the sta­ble, wa­ter-sol­u­ble col­or­ing in soda, ice cream and gummy bears. They’ve also tried it in cakes — frost­ing and crumbs in­cluded.

“One of the chal­lenges with nat­u­ral pig­ments right now is they’re not very sta­ble,” Ziegler said. “No. 2, in the color spec­trum, a lot of them are oil sol­u­ble, so to use them in soda or some­thing, they have to be used in an emul­si­fied form.”

The dif­fer­ence, Ziegler said, lies in price and con­ve­nience. With other food-col­or­ing sources, ad­di­tional in­gre­di­ents are needed. Some can’t take the heat.

“You can take col­ors from beet, for ex­am­ple, and make a red,” Ziegler said. “But it’s not very heat sta­ble, so if you try to put it in a prod­uct that needs to be heated, baked or pas­teur­ized, it’s not as sta­ble.”

AvoColor’s food-col­or­ing also matches up well with carotenoids, pig­ments in the same spec­trum of au­tum­nal col­ors. Whereas carotenoids re­quire emul­si­fiers or are found in non-waste prod­ucts, AvoColor’s col­or­ing comes from the part that’s tossed.

“We think there’ll be a price ad­van­tage be­cause a lot of these other prod­ucts are ex­tracted from ma­te­ri­als that are al­ready have some value in the mar­ket­place like pa­prika, or turmeric or saffron,” Ziegler said. “So al­most all the cur­rent al­ter­na­tives are ex­tracted from ma­te­ri­als that have in­her­ent value them­selves, and here we are ex­tract­ing this from some­thing that right now, doesn’t have any other value to it.”

The startup comes at a time when nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents are usurp­ing more of the plate from their ar­ti­fi­cial cousins. Ma­jor brands such as Her­shey, Nestlé and Whole Foods have swapped out syn­thet­ics for nat­u­rals in re­sponse to con­sumer de­mand. Items with “nat­u­ral” on their la­bels con­note safer, health­ier prod­ucts, ex­perts say, in the eyes of con­sumers. But whether that think­ing is spe­cious or not, Ziegler said, is less clear.

“Be­ing food sci­en­tists here, we ac­tu­ally don’t feel that syn­thet­ics are harm­ful at all,” he said. “But con­sumers per­ceive them that way, so we have a prod­uct that can ful­fill this con­sumer de­sire.”

Amer­ica’s hunger for av­o­ca­dos, mean­while, has grown in re­cent years. In 2012, the United States con­sumed more than 815,000 met­ric tons of the green fruit — or about a fifth of global con­sump­tion, ac­cord­ing to the United States Agency for In­ter­na­tional Devel­op­ment.

The ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity of fast-ca­sual chains like Chipo­tle, where gua­camole is a sta­ple, have also co­in­cided with the grow­ing ap­petite for av­o­ca­dos. For a brand like AvoColor, the tim­ing couldn’t be bet­ter.

“If you’ve no­ticed the buses driv­ing around town pro­mot­ing (fast-ca­sual chain) Moe’s South­west Grill, places like that are now pro­cess­ing a lot more av­o­ca­dos rather than sell­ing them whole,” Ziegler said. “In fact, when we first started mak­ing some of this pub­lic, it was av­o­cado grow­ers and pro­ces­sors who were mak­ing the first phone calls be­cause they saw some value in di­vert­ing these things from the land­fill.

“We’re in the po­si­tion where they’ll say ‘I got the truck filled up, where do I send it?’ “

Ac­cord­ing to Bob Hicks, the com­pany’s CEO, it’s no joke. The team has re­ceived calls ask­ing for how many tons it can take on.

“They are be­ing dis­posed of in ex­tremely large num­bers be­cause there’s no other value for the seed,” he said.

Oth­ers have seen the same prom­ise in the com­pany’s fu­ture. Ear­lier in Oc­to­ber, the team took home $50,000 for plac­ing sec­ond in a uni­ver­sity com­pe­ti­tion for star­tups.

The next steps in­volve get­ting FDA ap­proval, a po­ten­tially two-year or longer process, and find­ing cor­po­rate part­ners. Hicks said the team is tar­get­ing food color com­pa­nies, who can then mar­ket to the food com­pa­nies them­selves.

“The ques­tion is what is our win­dow of op­por­tu­nity within the mar­ket?” he said. “So we just need peo­ple to eat more gua­camole.”

Or in Ziegler’s case, make it.

“This whole sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of in­gre­di­ent state­ments, it’s a big is­sue for the food in­dus­try right now and most if not all of it is be­ing driven by per­cep­tion, that these are go­ing to be more health­ful for you,” he said. “As far as we know it’s all safe, but I do know anec­do­tally there are peo­ple who swear that if their kids eat red 40, they go crazy. But that’s OK, we’re here to please the mar­ket.”

PHOEBE SHEE­HAN - CEN­TRE DAILY TIMES VIA AP

Greg Ziegler, a pro­fes­sor of food science at Penn State, holds a con­tainer of av­o­cado pits in the lab at The Rod­ney A. Erick­son Food Science Build­ing in State Col­lege, Pa. Ziegler and his team have dis­cov­ered how to cap­ture un­likely col­ors — blood reds to Tang-like or­anges — from av­o­cado seeds, us­ing a process that’s part science, part mir­a­cle of na­ture.

PHOEBE SHEE­HAN - CEN­TRE DAILY TIMES VIA AP

Greg Ziegler, a pro­fes­sor of food science at Penn State, holds up a col­orant sam­ple in his of­fice at The Rod­ney A. Erick­son Food Science Build­ing in State Col­lege, Pa.

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