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Natural Dyes: The Promising Algae-based Solution

Earlier this month, the New York Times published a great feature on natural dyes. The article walks its readers through the history of artificial dyes and their fall from grace, diving into today’s quest for natural alternatives. After establishing their dominance in the early to mid 20th century, many studies since the 1950s have linked artificial dyes to everything from hyperactivity in children to distress and discomfort in adults. While they have not been banned in the U.S., public opinion has moved against them, and there has been a strong movement in recent years towards natural dyes.

The article points out, however, just how difficult it is to make natural dyes with the same aesthetic as artificial ones (and, as the author emphasizes, aesthetics are of utmost importance when it comes to consumption). It uses Mars, a company that has committed to using only natural dyes within five years’ time, as an example—they have been feverishly attempting to recreate their artificial colors in natural form, yet with only minimal success.

One of the most promising solutions? Algae-based dyes. The piece profiles ABO Board Member Amha Belay, who runs an algae farm at Earthrise Nutritionals in Southern California’s Imperial Valley that extracts blue pigment from spirulina. An already successful operation, Belay explains in the article that “blue is just the beginning.” As the author cleverly points out, “in a handful of soggy spirulina, Belay can see the potential for a sort of Crayola wonderland.” And Mars is enthusiastically applying algae to its products with considerable success.

This is of course not news to the algae industry. Algae has demonstrated great promise in the dye industry for many years and its position has only strengthened as the movement towards natural dyes has intensified. Matrix Genetics, another great ABO member, was featured in a Huffington Post article for its work manipulating genes in algae to produce blue dyes a little over a year ago.

There is of course more research to be done and progress to be made, but, as the article points out, algae is off to a very promising start. It is certainly satisfying to see those efforts recognized!

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