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Color-full Corn

What makes raspberry yogurt pink, cherry-pie filling red and grape soda purple? Would you believe refined petroleum?

That’s right. FD&C Red No. 40, the most common food color,is derived from fossil fuel. Nearly 7 million pounds ofsynthetic red dyes, worth over $2 billion, are added to foods, beverages, cosmetics and medicines every year.

Now a Minnesota food-ingredients company has come up with a natural alternative to Red Dye No. 40. With help from AURI,Suntava will introduce SayelaTM Colorant,a patent-pending color additive made from corn, this year. “Sayela” means “reddish” in the Lakota Native American language.

The natural plant dye is derived from SuntavaTMRed Maize, a non-GMO corn variety bred by Red Rock Geneticsof Lamberton, Minn. The striking, magenta-colored hybrid is full of valuable red pigments known as anthocyanins.


Demandfor plant-based color additives is surging, as more consumers want foods with no artificial ingredients, says Suntava CEO Bill Petrich, a former Schwan Food Companyexecutive. Natural-red colorant sales are rising 10 percent a year — more than three times the rate for synthetic red food dyes, he says. Today natural pigments account for about$500 million of the $2.8 billion market for red food color.“This is a great time to enter the market,” Petrich says.

There are many natural red-dye sources — purple cabbage, tomatoes, black carrots, elderberries, grape skins. However, plant-based dyes are susceptible to light and heat, unlike synthetic colorants, Petrich says. “The colors can change during processing and storage. That’s the down side of natural colorants.” Also, fruit and vegetable colorants may impart an odor or taste. And most botanical dyes are imported, so supplies “are more uncertain.”

Suntava’s advantages

Compared to other plant-based dyes, Suntava Red Maize pigments have many advantages, Petrich says. The dye stability is “slightly better than elderberry but not as good as black carrot.” But among natural dyes, its hue is one of the closest to Red Dye No. 40, the industry standard.

Suntava Red Maize has agronomic advantages, too. It is grown, harvested and stored just like conventional yellow corn, a plus for assuring reliable domestic and global supplies. “Corn is the king of crops,” Petrich says, adding that many natural dyes are imported “and have experienced cost increases due to the strength of the dollar.”

Redcorn’s starch and gluten are unaffected by Suntava’sproprietary anthocyanin-extraction process, Petrich says. Soin addition to pigments, “we still have a commodity to sell, which has an established market.”

There are “many, many applications” for red food color, Petrich says, including soft drinks, confections, snacks, dairy foods, condiments, cereal and cosmetics. Vitamin waters may be one of the best markets, says Petrich who is negotiating with potential customers in the United States,Europe, Australia and New Zealand.


Antioxidants in development

Besides colorants, Suntava plans to produce nutraceuticals —food additives that promote health.

Suntava Red Maize contains high levels of three powerful antioxidants: cyanidin-3-glucoside, pelargonidin andpeonidin, Petrich says. Antioxidants are widely used indietary supplements, power bars and drinks, breakfast cereal and other fortified foods. And they are frequently used incosmetics and anti-aging products. “The wholesale market for these is even bigger than the colorant market,” topping $5.7billion a year, Petrich says.

Suntava has developed a process to extract the antioxidantsfrom red corn and is working towards FDA approval for Sayela extract.

A new crop for Minnesota

Red maize is a brand new commercial crop for Minnesota, says Dennis Timmerman, AURI project director, who has assisted the red-corn venture since 2002. Meadowland Cooperative, based in Lamberton, is handling grower contracts, agronomics and identity-preserved storage.

“Agronomically, it’s similar to yellow corn, although they ields are less than conventional corn,” says John Valentin, Meadowland general manager. “So we’re paying growers on a per-acre basis, rather than per bushel. This year, we had more farmers who wanted to grow it than we had acres available,” he says. “It’s new and exciting, so people are interested in it.”

The 3,000-member co-op has also invested in Suntava. If the business takes off, red maize could be a good specialty crop for Meadowland growers, Valentin says, “and the return could be better than yellow corn.” Within a few years, Petrichsays Suntava might easily need 10,000 to 15,000 acres. Meadowland, a full-service cooperative with 14 locations across a 75-mile swath of southwestern Minnesota, “is large enough to handle any size volume this might grow into,” Valentin says.