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jueves, 18 de abril 2024
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Jagua blue, the natural colorant discovered at the UdeA

By Andrea Carolina Vargas Malagón, Journalist

At the end of 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use and commercialization of jagua blue dye, a pigment developed by the Colombian company Ecoflora Cares based on the discovery made by Luis Fernando Echeverri, PhD in Chemical Sciences and researcher of the Organic Chemistry of Natural Products (QOPN) group at the Universidad de Antioquia.

Esteban Vargas, a researcher in the Organic Chemistry of Natural Products (QOPN) group, focused his master's thesis on the structures of the jagua blue dye. Photo: UdeA Communications Office / Alejandra Uribe F.

If you were to mention blue-colored foods and beverages you know, it would likely take some time to list them, and you might be able to count them on both hands at most. This color is very difficult to find in nature, making the extraction of a pigment of this shade from the juice of a fruit native to the American tropics a milestone for both science and the food industry.

“Many years ago, during a phytochemistry or natural products chemistry course I teach, some students went on a field trip to La Jagua de Ibirico, a municipality in Cesar. When they returned, they all came into the lab with stained hands holding some fruit. They said excitedly, ‘look at this fruit that stains the skin.’ I took the jagua and mixed its juice with an amino acid, which resulted in a spectacular color,” told us Echeverri about his first encounter with the fruit. More than 20 years later, it would become the first 100% natural blue pigment made in Colombia, offering vibrant color to the food, beverage, and cosmetics industry.

Genipa americana 

The scientific name of the fruit commonly known as jagua is Genipa americana. According to a report published by the Humboldt Institute in 2020, this species is native to tropical America, and in Colombia, it is relatively abundant in the Pacific region and Antioquia. Its cultivation has shown potential for soil recovery in areas degraded by mining and overgrazing, as well as protection of water sources and natural ecosystems.

In the laboratory, the jagua blue color discovered by Echeverri remained as an object of study that was more akin to a hobby driven by curiosity, and the joy of finding novelties in the professor’s area of knowledge. According to the researcher, approximately 10 years passed since he first obtained that dye until, unexpectedly, he met a researcher from a company in Medellín dedicated to developing technological solutions and services derived from biodiversity for the food, cosmetics and personal care industries. She became interested in that blue color extracted from the jagua.

“Ecoflora researcher Sandra Zapata attended a course I was teaching. She told me that the company was having difficulties with a tattoo material derived from jagua that they were exporting to Europe. We conducted studies, did tests, and found a solution. Then I remembered what I had achieved years before and, with the surplus from one of those tests, together with a wider range of reagents from the laboratory, we replicated the reaction. Once again, an intense and vibrant jagua blue appeared," said Echeverri.

Following the interest of Ecoflora’s manager and co-founder, Nicolás Cock Duque, in the product obtained, the company partnered with UdeA. This collaboration initiated a long process of studies, research and administrative procedures that culminated in the consolidation of the jagua blue natural dye. Not only is it bright and intense, but odorless, tasteless, stable to pH and temperature, water-soluble and completely safe, according to the recent FDA approval (see box.).

Food and Drug Administration

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the U.S. government agency responsible for protecting public health by ensuring the safety, quality, and sanitation of foods (except for meat, poultry, and some egg products regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.). Additionally, the FDA is tasked with ensuring that human and veterinary drugs, biological products, and medical devices intended for human use meet the same standards.

Over 15 years of research conducted by a multidisciplinary team of chemical engineers, biotechnologists, chemists, agronomists, biologists, and researchers from the QOPN group resulted in a master's thesis on pigment structures, a doctoral dissertation focusing on the production, stability, and properties of the colorant, two patents, both owned by Ecoflora, and, finally, "the green light" to enter the food and cosmetics industry market in several countries, including the United States.

The first U.S. patent granted for this discovery was obtained in 2011, derived from the method of preparing the blue dye product from the raw, unprocessed juice extracted from the pulp of the Genipa americana, commonly known as jagua. This method involved mixing the jagua juice with glycine or glycine plus starch to achieve its powdered form. Glycine, the smallest amino acid found in the human body.

Five years later, in 2016, the second patent was obtained. This patent pertained to the isolation of the dye compounds, which enabled the proposal of the molecular structure of the main product obtainable: a blue polymer. Dr. Echeverri explained, “The structure of the molecule is the sequence in which the atoms are organized. Notably, the structure of this blue is very complex because the color is composed of 4-5 minority substances and one abundant substance.”

Regarding the university’s role in the development of this invention, which is already being marketed in different countries, Dr. Echeverri commented, “the university is a hub of knowledge, and developing this type of studies allows us to contribute to the community. Firstly, it puts biodiversity at the service of society; secondly, it makes biodiversity useful beyond contemplating a tree and simply saying 'oh, how beautiful'; and thirdly, because it involves communities and generates more social and economic opportunities.”

Harnessing biodiversity responsibly is possible

The business model established by Ecoflora for the responsible production and commercialization of the blue dye proves that harnessing biodiversity sustainably is possible. Unlike extractive processes, Ecoflora’s approach involves commercial plantations of the Genipa americana tree, which ensure a stable supply chain of raw material and also contribute to the restoration of soils degraded by other economic activities such as mining and cattle raising.

In addition, the company acknowledges the cultural importance of jagua for some communities, such as the Embera Katios indigenous people, who use the dark blue juice of the fruit for their tattoos. In alignment with the principles of the Convention on Biological Diversity (see box), Ecoflora has entered into benefit-sharing agreements with various Embera community groups. These agreements entail the production of jagua fruit and ensure that the communities receive both monetary and non-monetary benefits from any commercialization of the blue dye and its applications.

Convention on Biological Diversity 

It is an international treaty signed in 1993 that establishes the principle of sovereign rights of individual states over genetic resources located within their territories. According to this principle, any benefits derived from the utilization of these genetic resources must be shared equitably with the country of origin.

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