ScotBio increases phycocyanin in spirulina for ‘enhanced’ blue

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Spirulina has gained popularity as an ingredient in health foods ©GettyImages-Westend61
Spirulina has gained popularity as an ingredient in health foods ©GettyImages-Westend61
Scottish biotech company ScotBio has developed a patent-protected method of enhancing the amount of phycocyanin, the blue pigment, produced in spirulina. The company says this innovation will make indoor grown spirulina a cost-effective option for the food sector.

Globally, consumer sentiment is fuelling the move away from artificial ingredients and toward natural alternatives. Finding natural ingredients to replace yellow or red colours is ‘easy’, according to ScotBio. But developing natural alternatives to blue presents the sector with more of a challenge.

Phycocyanin is one option. It is a blue pigment that naturally occurs in spirulina algae. It is a flexible blue colourant that also boasts antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Using phycocyanin as a food colouring is not new. But ScotBio has developed a production method that gives it a number of advantages, chief operating officer Polly Van Alstyne told FoodNavigator.

Unlike most other producers, ScotBio grows its spirulina algae inside a custom growing facility rather than an open pond system.

Usually, spirulina grown indoors is ‘cost prohibitive’, Van Alstyne explained. However, ScotBio has developed a way to increase the amount of blue produced by the spirulina algae, meaning it is able to produce the colourant indoors and remain ‘cost competitive’.

“We have created a way to enhance the production of phycocyanin within the organism so we estimate we get as much as five times the amount of phycocyanin than the average pond grown spirulina.

“If you look at our spirulina next to pond grown spirulina you can really see the blue in it – it comes out with a much more enhanced blue green colour.”

The process to achieve this is all-natural and involves the use of special red lighting. “We have a patent on the system we use to grow it. We use a particular light spectrum that triggers the organism to produce more of the blue colour.”

The breakthrough was initially found by Chelsea Brain, a PhD student sponsored by Scottish Bioenergy, in 2010. The company has since refined and developed the process.

Edible blue-green algae, including Spirulina, has been used for food for thousands of years. Spirulina has gained popularity in the health food industry and increasingly as a protein and vitamin supplement.

algae spirulina powder spoon

Improved performance: ‘It gives more flexibility in the formulation stage’

According to ScotBio, the natural colourant is well suited to a variety of applications, from confectionery, to ice creams and beverages. Interestingly, Van Alstyne noted, it appears to be more stable than other natural blues and can even be used in alcoholic beverages.

“We start with a higher quality phycocyanin within the organism, which makes it easier when it comes to extraction. We can extract more. And what we have also found is we tend to have slightly better stability. We can, for example, make blue gin. If you take the phycocyanin out of traditional pond grown spirulina and put it into an alcohol it would denature completely.

“It basically means we have a very high quality and purity phycocyanin.”

ScotBio’s research and development teams have also successfully spray dried the pure molecule. This is significant because ‘most other producers’ have to buffer it with sugar, Van Alstyne explained.

“Trehalose is the sugar commonly used if you look at the market leading product. What they would have to do is mix it with the trehalose sugar in order to spray dry because in the process the heat needed would denature [the phycocyanin].

“We have taken the pure molecule. That opens up the ability of how you use that. You can mix it, chose different bulking agents, it opens up the ability to produce things like sugar free options or bulk it with different types of sugars. It gives more flexibility in the formulation stage.”

Scot Bio - CEO, David 'D.C.' van Alstyne with a sample of Scot Bio's blue food colourant 8
ScotBio CEO, David van Alstyne with a sample of the company's blue food colourant

Traceability, safety and supply

Indoor production also ‘ticks a lot of boxes’ for food makers looking to source natural blues, Van Alstyne observed.

“With the drive for clean labels forcing brands to switch to natural colours manufacturers have certain challenges or requirements that they want to achieve. This includes end-to-end traceability, a controlled environment, security of supply, knowing there is year-round supply.

“Open ponds don’t necessarily tick all of those boxes. With an open pond system there are greater risks of contamination. There is a growing season – you can’t grow 24-7 by 365, which we can do.”

Van Alstyne stressed that one particular risk of growing outdoors is that contaminants can enter the system. ScotBio’s controlled environment offers a solution: “There is significantly less risk of any contamination finding its way into the system. There is full control of every input that goes into the system.”

“The methodology we employ in our growth through controlled mechanisms and growing cycle, [means] indoor production ticks a lot of boxes for the challenges brands are facing.”

Market growth: ‘Right place, right time, right product’

To date, ScotBio has undertaken ‘very limited engagements’ with customers, sampling with big brands, ingredient suppliers and an ingredient trading company. With a recently completed funding round for £2m the group is now gearing up to accelerate its business.

“We have got a situation where right place, right time, right product,”​ Van Alstyne said. “The market conditions are very good. There is high demand for spirulina extract. There is an undersupply in the marketplace. Our objective is to continue to scale our product and to become a market leader and get a good chunk of market share.”

The next step is opening a large-scale pilot plant that moves production from 2,000 litre tanks to 50,000 litre tanks to ‘prove the model’. Within 12 months ScotBio expects to open a second large-scale facility.

The global spirulina market size was $346m in 2018, and is projected to reach $779m by 2026, according to Allied Market Research. This represents a compound annual growth rate of 10.6% from 2019 to 2026.

Future proofing with further innovation

While bringing its phycocyanin to mass scale is ScotBio’s immediate focus, Van Alstyne said that the company is also working on other areas of innovation to ‘future proof’ the business.

“Longer term we are looking to expand the product portfolio to bring in some different ingredients, whether it be proteins or other biochemicals. But those are in an earlier stage of development.”

Research includes efforts to fully utilise the spirulina biomass in order to valorise what are currently waste streams and decrease food loss.

“Once we have taken the phycocyanin out of the spirulina there is still quite a lot of biomass left with other high value biochemicals in it and a high percentage of protein. We want to use as much of that biomass as we possibly can.”

Outside the company’s core focus on natural ingredients – and separated by a ‘porcelain wall’ – it is also collaborating with scientists at the University of Edinburgh through two projects examining synthetic biology.

“We are looking at ways synthetic biology could potentially enhance the quality, quantity and stability of the molecule through non-transgenic genetic modification.”

Simply put, this refers to a process where select parts of DNA are removed by something akin to ‘molecular scissors’. “A couple of the students have developed an adaptation of CRISPR, a tool kit which can be used to identify the particular gene that needs to be manipulated in an efficient and fast manner. We would be knocking out genes rather than inserting genes. It is still in the very early stages of development but it is very interesting to us.”

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