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Cempasúchil, the Mexican marigold

How to reclaim the industry? China has three-quarters of marigold crops in the world, followed by India (20%) and Peru (5%)
Cempasúchil, the Mexican or Aztec marigold – Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL
01/11/2017
11:32
Berenice González Durand
Mexico City
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Cempasúchil, also known as "flower of the Dead," was first described in the Florentine Codex or Historia general de las cosas de nueva España (General history of the things of New Spain), an encyclopedic work about the people and culture of central Mexico compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (14991590), a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529. The name of this flower comes from the Náhuatl "Cempohualxochitl," which translates to "20 flowers" or "many flowers".

The Mexican or Aztec marigold was commonly used in both traditional medicine and in funerary rituals as a tomb decoration since it was thought that its yellow and orange petals were able to keep the heat of the sun and shelter the dead.

In addition to the ceremonial role that marigold has in our country, its rich colors gave rise to another of its main uses: oleoresin extraction. Oleoresin is mainly used in the food and animal feed industry to color pasta, butter, cookies, eggs, and chicken meat among other food products.

"When [oleoresin] is used in poultry feeds, the pigmentation of the products obtained from the poultry industry is more attractive to the consumer", explains researcher Agustín López Munguía, of the Institute of Biotechnology of the UNAM. For example, without the pigments, egg yolks would be almost transparent.

Cempasúchil has yellow and orange hues due to the rich presence of carotenoids, pigments of the group of isoprenoids. These substances are found naturally in plants and other photosynthetic organisms. Animals and humans do not synthesize them, so they must be obtained through diet. López Munguía adds that these components inactivate free radicals as well.

Lutein is the main carotenoid of the Aztec marigold. The researcher points out that this substance represents a very important market in food supplements due to its properties for the maintenance and recovery of the macula of the eye. The macula is the small area at the center of the retina responsible for what we see straight in front of us, at the center of our field of vision giving us the vision needed for detailed activities such as reading and writing.

However, cempasúchil production in Mexico only supplies the ornamental market while the rest needed to support food industry is imported.

"Unfortunately, the industry that was responsible for the processing of the cempasúchil flower in Mexico was one of the victims of the commercial opening. In the 90s, there were about eight companies dedicated to the extraction of oleoresins from the flower.” But the Asian industry quickly conquered the market with better growing capacity and higher investment. Currently, China has three-quarters of marigold crops in the world, followed by India (20%) and Peru (5%).

According to the researcher, science and the application of modern technologies are the only option for Mexico to reclaim the cempasúchil industry.

Researchers from the Faculty of Higher Studies campus Cuautitlán (Facultad de Estudios Superiores abbreviated FES)  and the Institute of Chemistry (Instituto de Química abbreviated IQ) of the UNAM, recently obtained a new variety of cempásuchil with higher biomass and the possibility of being harvested up to three times a year.

For specialists, one of Mexico's main advantages is that it concentrates 32 of the 55 species of marigold in the world, along with climatic diversity that supports their planting conditions. However, science needs support to provide the appropriate framework for the cempasúchil industry.

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