Hue and cry over all-natural food colors; A California research center is exploring alternatives to synthetic dyes in everything from tortillas to cat food.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To care about the color of cat food -- to really fuss over, say, a roast-beefy red -- you must loathe hues of rust and old gravy. You must adore the way that an Italian grape skin extract can hold its purple with such might during the heat of pasteurization that it won't brown out (this is tricky, though). No matter where you turn, the world must explode at you in tangerines and peacock blues and glorious color, the way it does for Gabriel J. Lauro, food scientist.

Lauro is the unpaid director of the Natural Color Resource Center at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. The center, which opened last year, is the first of its kind, he says, a place to dream up natural alternatives to the red 40s and blue 1s and other artificial colorings, and to collect scientific papers on the subject.

This at a time when the public zeal for everything au naturel extends even to cat food, and the federal government is proposing tighter standards for foods labeled organic (including banning genetically engineered "Frankenstein foods" from the category). In the past five years, organic and natural-food sales have increased by 15 to 20 percent, exceeding $5 billion last year, according to the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

Lauro is working to sate the tastes of baby boomers who want all-natural rice puffs with ginkgo biloba, and hold the red dye No. 3, please, and make it pretty, too. And they want the chow that their cats eat to look like the three squares that are on their own dining tables.

Lauro gave up retirement to run the center because it was his dream to start a public resource center on natural color. At 69, his hands look like a kindergartner's, streaked with Crayola-like colors.

"Now I'm like a pig in mud," he crows.

It's not that there's anything wrong with synthetic colorings, says Lauro, who doesn't eschew them in his diet. But the marketing cachet of "all natural" demands that the industry explore alternative possibilities.

And so Lauro tinkers around in a laboratory with jars labeled blueberry powder, Indian turmeric and other polysyllabic stuff of his science, a salesman for natural colors. "Show you how this baby works," he offers with glee, turning a clear solution the color of raspberry with a drop of red cabbage extract.

Lauro, the son of an artist, said he didn't grow up thinking his life would be ruled by colors. In high school, he thought about becoming some sort of a scientist. One summer, as a teen-ager, Lauro worked in a frozen-food packaging plant. In the Army, an officer suggested that he look into food science, and, in 1960, he earned a doctorate in the field from Rutgers University.

He later became a director of research at Hunt-Wesson Inc. in Fullerton, Calif., working in the tomato line and a bit with popcorn. In 1981, he became president and co-owner of a California company that specialized in natural color ingredients.

In 1990, after selling the company, Lauro retired. He wanted to spend more time with his wife and two grown sons, perhaps do some gardening and painting.

But a year before his planned retirement, at a food-industry meeting, he happened to sit next to Wayne R. Bidlack, dean of California State Polytechnic University's College of Agriculture.

What he really wanted to do, Lauro told Bidlack, was start a research center, a place dedicated to the emerging science of natural colors and the nurturing of graduate students in the field. A repository for research on the subject. Sure, the labs in the big private food companies experiment with natural colors. But they don't share information, and their work is specific to a single cookie type or product.

"He was internationally recognized as a leading natural color expert," says Bidlack, who was tracking the surging consumer interest in natural and organic foods. "A little bell goes off in my head. ..."

Bidlack called with an offer: no salary or benefits but a lab bench, his blessing, and the imprimatur of his institution.

"This was a dream!" Lauro says. His retirement was over.

On a recent afternoon, Lauro was deep in thought about soy flakes, one of the raw materials of cat food.

Lauro recently gave a talk to a major pet-food maker, and he thinks consumers will not long stand for cat chow colored by iron rust. Swirling soy flakes and a purple carrot extract with water in a petri dish, he's trying to replicate the color of seared beef. "Just interested in knowing how it would behave," he says of the mixture.

Usually, Lauro works on requests from private industry, which average about two a week. One company, for instance, wants its baked tortillas to look fried -- he is going for a greasy orange-brown look here -- and another company wants its all-natural strawberry ice cream a deeper pink.

Lauro doesn't charge a fee; instead, he asks companies to make a donation to the laboratory. So far, he has raised about $10,000 for the center. The lab also gets by on donated material and equipment, and the fees that Lauro charges for talks on natural colors.

What a history! he will tell food executives. The Egyptians used natural extracts to color their hair, you know. And what do you think Betsy Ross used to color her flag? Turns out it's the same extract that the Romans used for their soldiers' uniforms so their army could march in a sea of red.

Lauro will turn with delight to a jar of cactus bugs from Peru that are the size and color of shriveled BBs. A bright red extract from the bug is used in products including cranberry juice (the ingredients will list "carmine," though, not "tiny dried beetles").

Now, Lauro will ask food-industry officials, how do we tweak time-tested natural colors for today's products?

Will the extract mess with the food's acidity? Will it go bonkers in light? What about the fade-out factor? Costs? (Natural colors usually cost more than synthetics; carmine, for instance, can cost up to $300 a pound, compared with less than $10 a pound for most synthetic colors.)

The work, Lauro says, is "much like an artist's." He does not want to be a shade off. Color jumps at people; it's what they see first in anything from oil paintings to cereal.

Imagine a world without color, he says, and, for a second, he shudders at the thought.

Life, he says, would be very dull.

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