UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Food scientists Gregory Ziegler and Joshua Lambert are the 2020 recipients of the Research Innovators Award, given by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences to recognize faculty and staff who have commercialized intellectual property generated by their Penn State research.
The honorees will formally receive the award, which includes a $3,000 stipend, at a recognition ceremony that will be scheduled later this year.
The duo is being recognized for their work in developing a range of vibrant, natural food colorants derived from the seed of the avocado. Their discovery led to the creation of a company, Persea Naturals, and its AvoColor product line of food color additives.
“Dr. Ziegler’s and Dr. Lambert’s work has created a growing business that meets the food processing industry’s rising demand for natural food coloring additives that are derived from a waste product,” said Robert Roberts, professor and head of the Department of Food Science. “This is an innovation with a practical impact in a $1.6 billion market, and they are worthy of this prestigious Research Innovator Award.”
Persea Naturals began when Ziegler, professor of food science, discovered that when avocado pits are pulverized, an enzymatic reaction produces a bright orange color. After extracting the starch, Ziegler could not get the color to wash away.
This observation launched a multiyear research endeavor to identify the colored compound in partnership with Lambert, professor of food science. The pair’s research — which proved both the stability of the color and the wide spectrum of orange, yellow and red hues available — resulted in the discovery of a natural food color.
Since Persea Naturals was founded in 2016, Ziegler and Lambert have been involved in several programs through the Invent Penn State initiative, which helps university researchers through the commercialization process. The scientists achieved a significant milestone when they received $75,000 in jumpstart funding from Invent Penn State’s Fund for Innovation.
The researchers also received a RAIN grant for research commercialization from the College of Agricultural Sciences and participated in an intensive business accelerator run by Ben Franklin Technology Partners. Additionally, Persea Naturals has received two Small Business Innovation Research grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The technology developed by this team is exceptional in that it also has the potential to provide benefits besides its use as a natural food colorant,” said Gary Thompson, associate dean of research and graduate education for the college. “They have added value to a waste product that usually ends up in landfills and now are testing the extracts from the seeds for anti-inflammatory properties.”
Ziegler joined the Penn State faculty in 1988. He holds a bachelor’s degree in food science from the University, a master’s degree in animal and food industries from Clemson University, and a doctoral degree in food engineering, with minors in chemical and agricultural engineering, from Cornell University.
His research interests focus on physical properties and processing of polymeric and particulate foods, with an emphasis on chocolate and confectionery products.
Ziegler’s record of research commercialization and the development of intellectual properties includes 10 patent disclosures, of which the University has applied for eight patents. He has been granted three patents, with another under review.
From 1999 to 2009, he served as the director of Penn State’s Center for Food Manufacturing, where he worked closely with its corporate members to guide research relevant to commercial activities.
Lambert came to Penn State in 2008. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University and earned a doctorate in pharmacology and toxicology from the University of Arizona. He conducted postdoctoral research in chemical biology at Rutgers University.
As co-director of the Center for Plant and Mushroom Foods for Health at Penn State, he studies foods that can prevent diseases including cancer and fatty liver disease. His lab studies the polyphenols derived from tea, cocoa, mushrooms and avocados.
Lambert’s research has garnered financial support from organizations including the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the National Cancer Institute, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.