Gregory Ziegler was helping his son come up with an idea for his science fair project when he discovered an unusual result.
After making some guacamole, Ziegler had a few avocado pits remaining. As Ziegler works primarily with starch, he knew the avocado pits had a lot of starch in them, so he proceeded to extract it. After having ground up the seeds with water in a blender, what he got was a bright orange color.
This result is what led Ziegler to begin conducting research on the avocado pits.
“I get curious about things. So I started to look into this and found out there was no information on this. I couldn’t find this phenomenon described anywhere,” Ziegler, a professor of food science at Penn State, said.
Ziegler pursued this project out of curiosity and had not received a research grant until recently. Additionally, Ziegler has had approximately five students work on various elements of the research project throughout the years in order to learn more about the avocado pit.
It’s been approximately 10 years since Ziegler noticed the bright orange color, and now Ziegler and his research team have a good idea of what the bright orange color is and what it can be used for, Ziegler said.
“We’re at a point where we know what this color is and that it has some utility,” Ziegler said.
The food industry is trying to eliminate the use of artificial colors and artificial flavors. Through his research, Ziegler would be developing a natural color; however, usually artificial colors are able to last longer than natural colors, Ziegler said.
“Kraft has decided it’s going to take artificial colors out of macaroni and cheese. Some of the candy companies are pulling other artificial colors out, so the natural color market is really booming,” Joshua Lambert, associate professor in food science, said.
However, a significant amount of natural coloring manufacturers face the task of producing content that can be depended upon and harmless, Lambert said.
In the case of the avocado pit, the extracts from the avocado pit appear to be different than most natural colors, and it doesn’t lose its brightness and is durable, Ziegler said.
“We’ve actually put it in a number of different matrices, some different foods, so it’s not only applicable to maybe drinks and stuff, but also candies and baked goods,” Ziegler said.
With the increase in demand of natural colors, the avocado pit serves exactly that purpose.
“It’s going to be important because of the direction that we’re moving in our food system and throughout the whole world,” Rachel Shegog (graduate-food science) said.
For something that came about from simple trial and error, Ziegler’s own discovery can now be used in the real world.
“It’s nice when your academic work can lead to something practical that has application,” Ziegler said.