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Worried about the chemicals coloring your M&M's? These startups make treats non-toxic

Updated: Feb 15

A jar of M&Ms on a field of grass.
Image Credit: Unsplash/Michael Arasch

If you traveled back in time between 1976 and 1987, walked into a candy shop, and bought a pack of Mars M&Ms, you might be surprised to find that the red M&M would be nowhere to be found.

Today, as Fox News criticizes, M&Ms are going woke, from the diversity of the rainbow to one mascot’s “offensive” high-heeled shoes. The introduction of the purple M&M threw the broadcast into a frenzy, but if the M&Ms of the 20th century were still on shelves today, they may be far more polarizing. Why? Because the color in it was made from coal tar.

There's nothing sweet about the history of how food colors accidentally became the byproduct of coal fuel. In a candyshell, when chemists discovered that the coal tar gas and oil companies dumped into waterways could be used to make vivid dyes for candy, butter, alcohol, jellies, pickles, you name it, the entire food industry shifted. Coal was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

That was until suspicion about cancer-causing dyes led to very few being allowed on the market and a 1950 outbreak of dozens of illnesses caused by Halloween candy led the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to strike coal tar colors Orange #1, Orange #2, and Red #32 from the list. Later Red #2 was found to cause tumors in rats and thus, until 1987, there was no such thing as a red M&M.

Today, critics argue that the petroleum, or crude oil, the majority of modern food dyes is made with, is no better than coal.

While the FDA does not find any “causal relationships” between artificial food dyes and human health issues, there is ongoing research on the linkage between Red #40 and Yellow #5 and childhood hyperactivity. In fact, as recent research by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment concludes, the link is very well possible.

Over in Europe, colors like Red #40 require a warning label affixed to the foods they’re in, and other colors are banned outright. M&M’s, which traditionally uses Red #40, Yellow #5, and more, are made with natural coloring throughout the EU but not in the US.

Possible health effects aside, food dyes (along with many flavors and fragrances) are still made from fossil fuel byproducts, and as the world weans off of oil and gas, our foods eventually will have to be fossil fuel-free.

That’s where companies like Michroma come in.

Based in the US, Michroma is a precision fermentation company creating natural colors and flavorings for food with its synthetic biology platform. On the ingredient list is filamentous fungi.

The company just received a $6.4 million seed round led by Supply Change Capital, a food tech VC backed by 301 INC, the corporate venture capital arm of General Mills. The round also had participation from Be8 Ventures, Korean food culture company CJ CheilJedang, and SOSV’s IndieBio.

With the money, Michroma will be able to invest in R&D and commercialize its line of fungi colorants starting with the color that’s cooked up the most controversy: red.

Eventually, Michroma hopes to expand across the entire rainbow, poising itself “to meet consumer demand for healthier and more sustainable food without petroleum-based ingredients,” the company’s CEO and co-founder, Ricky Cassini said in a statement.

“Unlike the current generation of unstable natural options, like betalains, carminic acid, and anthocyanins, Michroma is producing better-performing natural colorants powered by fungi. This next stage of our development will help us industrialize our fungal platform and enable the world’s transition to natural colors.”

So how does it work?

The novel approach creates “fungal biofactories,” using synthetic biology, techniques like CRISPR to edit the fungi, and the company’s own synthetic biology toolbox. As AgFunder explains, these biofactories can produce small molecules like color and flavor.

Through the fermentation process, Michroma is able to achieve a powdery product with stable pH levels for a variety of foods. For example, bright red cherry sodas and candies use a pH level of 3, while colored raspberry macarons or other baked goods need a pH level of 5, and strawberry ice cream, a pH level of 6.

Michroma isn’t stopping at red, with orange and yellow next on the color wheel and their to-do list. Blue and white are down the line as well, and eventually, the company hopes to expand to a line of flavors and fragrances.

Michroma’s colors may be pricier than other chemical food dyes, but as Cassini said via AgFunder, that’s a non-issue: “[Food companies] are switching from synthetic options to natural ones because of consumer pressure, and also stricter regulations. So we believe in the future the switch is going to be complete sooner or later.”

“We still have to work to be cheaper than synthetic dyes, but I think that’s something that we can do in the next few years,” he added.

Cassini is right about consumer pressure. According to a 2021 survey by the nonprofit International Food Information Council, nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults say that ingredients matter in their food or beverage buying decisions. Plus about 64% said they would try food with cleaner ingredients.

For food coloring especially, people are more concerned. In a poll by the research group Nielsen, 92% reported some level of worry about colorings by big manufacturers like Burger King, Nestle, Kraft, Mars, and General Mills.

In addition to working toward the post-fossil fuel revolution, Michroma also engages in sustainable practices like upcycling and waste management, using agro-industrial waste as a feedstock for its fermentation process. They also ensure that their supply chain is free of harmful herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers, and minimize water consumption.

Not to mention, compared to other widely used natural food colorings like red made from beetroots, orange made from turmeric, and other colors made from insects that die off in the cooking process, Michroma uses significantly less arable land and has a smaller carbon footprint due to its short supply chain. Plus, unlike Michroma’s many of these dyes aren’t vegan, halal, or kosher.

However, Michroma isn’t the only startup looking to green the food coloring, food fragrance, and food flavoring world.

Pigmentum claims that its molecular technology platform allows them to produce compounds at a fraction of the cost of fermentation, and like Michroma, the team behind Pigmentum is working on pigments, aromas, and flavors.

FootPrint Coalition-backed Motif Foodworks is developing a beef flavor substitute. Like Michroma, Motif is using genetic engineering, but instead of fungi, the startup is cooking with yeast strains.

Vanilla Vida is creating the world’s most popular scent and taste without relying on tropical environments or intense labor. As Vanilla Vida explains, the supply of vanilla is currently not meeting demand. In Madagascar, where 70% of the world’s vanilla is grown, the increasing price of pods is resulting in violence, deforestation, and habitat destruction.

Vida’s technology removes the limits on where vanilla can be grown, making natural vanilla more accessible, sustainable, and plentiful. As TechCrunch reports, Spero Renewables and Pigmentum have the same goals, utilizing corn fiber acids and lettuce respectively to create vanilla flavor.

While many of these companies are still developing their alternative color, flavor, and smell solutions, Michroma is already there with plans to undergo regulatory processes for approval from the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Plus, according to the company, they are already prototyping with some of the world’s biggest food companies.

Global food colorants will be over a $6 billion market in 2030. With significant growth in the natural food coloring sector, by 2027, these types of colorings will account for almost half of the market.

As public perception around both health and the environment pivots, companies will have to make changes to keep up with the changing market. When Mars put the red M&M on hiatus in 1976, they didn’t even use the red coloring in question. Bad public perception and calls for a ban were enough to make a change that took over a decade to revert. Will the same happen in the 21st century?

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