Just a little more green: Consumer preference for natural food dyes boosts Marshfield company

By Jacob Luecke and Shawna Scott

As today’s shoppers become more label-savvy, foods marked “no artificial colors” are flying off the shelves.

“There has been a push for the removal of a lot of food additives, but now coloring has become a big focus for consumers,” said Gary Morris.

Morris is the facility manager at the Food Ingredient Solutions plant in Marshfield. The company is part of a small industry that manufactures the colors that go into our foods, drugs and cosmetics. Food Ingredient Solutions is seeing rapid growth thanks to its focus on developing and producing all-natural coloring alternatives derived from fruits and vegetables.

Most consumers aren’t aware how common it is for food to contain coloring. But Morris said coloring is important to help food achieve a consistent look from batch to batch.

“It’s a critical ingredient because people buy with their eyes first, so you want to see those vibrant colors when you go into the store,” Morris said. “If you left it to Mother Nature, a lot of your stuff would sometimes look appealing and sometimes might look much less appealing. You wouldn’t want to eat it, so you need to standardize that for the consumer to make it look the same every single time.”

And dyes aren’t just in brightly colored products like Froot Loops or Kool-Aid. Even foods you wouldn’t think need added color typically have some.

“A lot of your candies that you look at, even the brown ones — that’s food color in there,” Morris explained. “Fruit juices that you’re drinking actually have some color added to them to compensate if the fruits came in a little weak in their color.”

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Gary Morris, Food Ingredient Solutions facility manager

Morris, who was a molecular biologist early in his career, uses his science background to help push the industry forward. However, several hurdles remain as natural-focused companies like Food Ingredient Solutions seek to gain a larger market share. Synthetic dyes are inexpensive, uniform and vivid — all qualities that are hard to replicate using natural ingredients.

“Synthetic colors are just like chemistry. You have a formula; nothing varies,” Morris said. “The natural colors are coming from fruits and vegetables, so depending upon what Mother Nature did when the crop was growing, you may have some variables in there that you have to deal with and everything is extracted a little bit differently.”

Because of these factors, going natural can cost a food manufacturer up to 20 times more than a synthetic color does, said Morris. Fortunately, color amounts to a miniscule portion of the final product’s cost. And even if it’s a little more expensive, many health-conscious consumers will still reach for an artificial-free food.

“What you see nowadays is people want that and they’re willing to pay for it. They want organic and they want gluten-free and they want all-natural,” Morris said.

That trend is helping drive growth for the company in Marshfield. The plant opened in 2010, and company leaders are already planning for its second expansion. The success has come as the company is overcoming regulatory hurdles to bring new food coloring products to market.

“It’s very gratifying when you can bring something to market that’s unique. We’ve actually done that a number of times here at this company,” Morris said.

And at the Marshfield plant, it’s all done with a small — but growing — staff of 14 employees.

“When you’re a smaller company, you tend to move a lot faster. We can bring things to market very quickly here. We have over 125 years of market knowledge and color knowledge within this company, so we all have certain core expertise areas,” said Morris.

So why Marshfield? For one, the central Midwest location and access to Interstate 44 make it the perfect transportation hub for shipping products across the U.S., Morris said.

“There are a lot of different labor skills in this area because of the different industries,” he added. “Plus, the universities are here, so you can pull from many different skill sets in this area. When you look at tax rates, Missouri’s also very appealing from that respect as well.”

Because food coloring is a secretive business, Morris couldn’t elaborate on how his company produces its colors. He also couldn’t say which food brands use the colors produced at his plant. However, colors made in Marshfield are present in many common products available at grocery stores across the country.

Morris seemed optimistic about where his industry is headed. One report predicts that if the trend continues, the global natural food dye market size will reach $2.5 billion by 2025. Morris said Food Ingredient Solutions is experiencing constant growth, with clients from small local buyers to large name-brand companies jumping on the natural color bandwagon.

“There’s somebody local right around here that stops by every once in a while and picks up a single box of color,” Morris said. “On the other end of the spectrum we have companies that send a truck and we’ll load the whole truck full of color for them.”

How is your company going green? Let us know in the comments below.

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