MARSHALL - A new corn strain being planted in southwest Minnesota has all the typical properties of average field corn, with a few additional ones that officials hope will change the way commercial corporations color their food.
Bill Petrich, CEO of Suntava, the company that designed the corn strain, said he hopes the company's purple corn, a natural hybrid that's not genetically modified, will become an established specialty crop. Several farmers across southwest Minnesota, including a half-dozen in Lamberton, have adopted the crop.
Suntava's corn, a field variety, can be used for traditional commercial food production, but what truly sets the corn apart from the competition is its royal purple color.
Suntava has designed a unique process that extracts a vivid red natural colorant from the corn, providing a stable, sustainable, all-natural replacement to several synthetic dyes currently on the market.
"We do not destroy the starches, proteins and oils when we extract the color of it," Petrich said. "It moves right on down the food chain."
According to Norman Benedict, a public relations specialist with Suntava, synthetic dyes, which are used in a broad range of applications ranging from food, candies and beverages, are petroleum-based and have been reported to cause a host of health related concerns, predominantly in children.
"It has been known to cause certain problems, especially in children," Benedict said.
"What Suntava started doing a decade ago when they started working on this was to come up with an alternative that would be sustainable and all natural."
A study released by the University of South Hampton in 2007 tied children's hyperactivity to six synthetic dyes used in common kids' products. Following its publication, the European Union developed legislation to require warning labels on products containing the dyes. Petrich said he hopes similar legislation eventually makes its way to the United States.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week is set to consider the potential link between hyperactivity in children and artificial dyes found in common foods such as juices and candy. According to the Wall Street Journal, the FDA is expected to call for additional research into the link.
"The studies that have been done have been coming primarily from not-for-profit groups that are on the bandwagon to go after things in the food chain that are causing health problems in the general population," Benedict said.
Suntava's dyes, Petrich said, are an all-natural replacement for petroleum-based dyes currently under review. The purple strain of corn also provides three powerful antioxidants not found in regular corn, he said.
Though the natural dye has many positive benefits, it is not without challenges. Natural dyes are known to be more difficult for corporations to incorporate into products.
"Synthetic dyes don't fade as much when exposed to heat or light," Petrich said, "So yeah, there are some challenges with natural dyes, but they're not insurmountable."
The cost of natural dyes is also higher than that of synthetics. Suntava is working to bring down costs in the process by selling and using the kernels after the dye is extracted, but their colors are still more expensive than synthetics.
Suntava's primary dye is a dark red that is a close match to the commonly used red No. 40 and works well in beverage applications. Still in its infancy, Petrich said the company has plans to expand into further colors in the future.
"We've been involved in the southwest Minnesota region since the company's founding," Petrich said. "This was born in Minnesota and it continues to grow here."