Michroma takes fungal food colors platform to pilot scale to produce pH-stable, heat-stable natural red

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image credit: Michroma
Image credit: Michroma

Related tags: Michroma, colors, food colors, CRISPR, gene editing

Michroma – a startup building a production platform for natural food colors from fungi – has advanced to pilot-scale production of a heat-stable vibrant red colorant it claims can give synthetic dyes a serious run for their money when it comes to performance and sustainability.

Michroma, which has offices in Argentina and San Francisco, CA, has identified filamentous fungi strains that naturally produce a target color, and deployed CRISPR gene editing technology to create proprietary, non-GMO industrial strains with superior yield and performance, explained co-founder and CEO Ricky Cassini, who worked as a professor of operations and logistics before teaming up with fellow academic Mauricio Braia in 2019.

He's a PhD in biological sciences and he has a lot of experience in the industry working with industrial biotech to produce ingredients valorizing industrial waste and scaling up industrial bio processes,”​ he told FoodNavigator-USA.

He told me about his crazy idea of making food dyes using fungi and I fell in love with it…”

‘Scaling up from lab scale to pilot scale is often an area where synbio fermentation companies fail’

Fed with low-cost feedstocks in bioreactors, the fungi secrete colors into the media where they are growing, added Cassini, “sowe don't have to break the cell to extract the color, which makes the downstream process way cheaper and simpler. It’s a simple filtration process and then the color is dried or concentrated.”

So what happens to the biomass that’s left over after the color has been harvested? “It has a high content of protein with all the essential amino acids and fiber that still retains a little bit of color, which makes it a very interesting byproduct for processed meat companies and plant-based meat companies,” ​said Cassini.

“Scaling up from lab scale to pilot scale is often an area where synbio fermentation companies fail, so we are really proud that we have scaled up to pilot scale with a CMO partner in Argentina, and we are in discussions with several CMOs here in the US and the rest of the world to scale up to industrial scale.”

Michroma red
The main attraction of Michroma's red color is performance, says co-founder Ricky Cassini. 'It’s the pH and thermal stability, the coloring power, and the fact that it doesn't have a strong flavor...' Image credit: Michroma

Fungi make for better bio factories…

While it’s not that unusual anymore to produce colors, flavors and sweeteners from microbes in fermentation tanks – several colors are now made using algae, yeast or bacteria, for example – ​fungi is more challenging, he said.

“There are some companies working with fungi, but it was really hard to edit fungi before CRISPR, so we think there is a huge opportunity to replace the bio factories that we are currently using such as yeast and bacteria, with modern bio factories created by fungi that are much more sophisticated microorganisms and are great at producing small molecules.”

Unlike algae such as spirulina (used to produce blue colors), meanwhile, Cassini’s fungi strains “don’t need light to grow,” ​he added.

“We are using the same platform to produce orange and yellow, with samples already in the market, and we want to expand this platform to produce other colors such as blue and green that are more difficult to find in nature with good stability.”

Challenges in the natural red color market

Natural colors are improving all the time, said Cassini. However, delivering a heat-stable, light-stable, naturally derived, vibrant red hue in products with neutral to higher pH remains very challenging if you want to avoid carmine (crushed Cochineal insects), which is not vegan, vegetarian, halal or kosher, and can put many buyers off.

Alternatives such as tomato lycopene work well in dairy, but it’s not the kind of rich deep vibrant red you’d need for a red velvet cake; while beets – which can have an earthy flavor – work at a neutral to basic pH ranges, but are not very heat stable, and can turn brown.  

Anthocyanins from grapeskin and juice, elderberry, purple and black carrot, purple sweet potato, red cabbage and red radish can work well in lots of applications such as beverages, in turn, but once the pH starts to rise they can change color from red to purple to blue.

‘It can survive spray drying, extrusion, and pasteurization’

Michroma’s vegan, kosher and halal red, however, is far more versatile, can work across a wide pH range, and is stable at high temperatures, enabling it to be used in everything from beverages, candy, ice cream, gummies and yogurt to red velvet cake, a notoriously challenging application area, said Cassini. 

“It can survive spray drying, extrusion, and pasteurization. And one gram of our colorant has 58 times more coloring power than beet, the usage ​[dose] is really, really low.”

Asked about light-stability, he said: “Our color is as stable as other natural colorants to light, but we are making progress on improving this.”

Michroma - Bakery
Michroma's red color can be used for red velvet cake, a notoriously challenging application in the world of natural red food colors...Image credit: Michroma

The attraction for food formulators: pH and thermal stability, coloring power, and lack of flavor

So what’s the key attraction for formulators?

The main attraction is performance, he said. “It’s the pH and thermal stability, the coloring power, and the fact that it doesn't have a strong flavor, which is something that they hadn't seen in the industry before.

“And then there is the sustainability factor, it’s not petroleum-based and it doesn’t require all the agricultural land, water, and pesticides to grow plants ​[just to extract color from them]. We can also produce it anywhere in the world.”

Color additive petition to be submitted to the FDA in 2022

Michroma, which is backed by a handful of seed investors including SOSV, is planning to launch a new round of investment in Q1 2022, said Cassini, who is now based in San Francisco.

As for the regulatory pathway to market, Michroma plans to submit a color additive petition to the FDA next year (the colors will be color additives exempt from certification), and is working with a regulatory consultant in the US to nail down how they might be listed on the ingredients list.

Webelieve we are going to have really appealing labeling. We can't share it right now, but we will after discussions with the FDA. It’s also important to note that it's not going to be considered GMO in Europe or the US.”

Michroma - M_Ms
Michroma's red color can be used in everything from beverages, candy, ice cream, gummies and yogurt to red velvet cake. Image credit: Michroma

The go-to-market strategy

So what’s the go-to-market strategy?

“We believe the partnership route is the best option,” ​said Cassini, ​who said he has been approached by some large players since the company first emerged from stealth mode.

“We want to scale up fast, so we are actively looking for collaborations with ingredients suppliers, because they have sales teams and distribution.”

Michroma bioreactor
Ricky Cassini: '“We want to scale up fast, so we are actively looking for collaborations with ingredients suppliers, because they have sales teams and distribution...' Image credit: Michroma

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