After years of breeding corn in an effort to discover host plant resistance, a husband and wife research team bred a unique purple maize with potential applications for the feed and food sectors.
Many of today’s commonly used household appliances, medications, and even foods were discovered by accident. The camera, microwave, potato chips and penicillin are a few examples of everyday products that researchers, doctors and inventors stumbled upon while aiming to create something entirely different.
Such is the story of Sayela™, a newly emerging natural alternative to red dye #40, which is extracted from an antioxidant-rich species of purple maize.
Sayela’s origin began more than a decade ago near Lamberton, MN, when researchers Lee and Joann French, one of the leading entomologist teams and founders of French Agricultural Research Inc., set out to find a species of corn with resistance to rootworm. What they found instead was a plant with notably high levels of anthocyanin, a naturally occurring red pigment, well-suited for application in the food, beverage, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.
But its story is not over yet, as Suntava LLC, the marketer of this proprietary purple maize, is continuing to research the potential health benefits of the grain for both humans and livestock.
Nearly 15 years ago the Frenches began acquiring seed from all over the globe so they could identify genes for host plant resistance to rootworm. The entomologists went to CIMMYT (the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement based in Mexico City) to gain access to seed from the West Indies, Latin America, South America, Europe, Egypt and other African nations.
From there, the Frenches and their corn breeder, John Mihm, began cross-breeding different species by hand, studying their genetic characteristics and selecting which lines to cross based on genetic traits.
After several generations using breeding trials spanning the globe, they finally discovered a gene for host plant resistance; however, in the meantime they also discovered a very different, yet equally useful property: extremely high levels of anthocyanain, which opened a whole new set of doors for the Frenches’ purple maize.
A turning point
Bill Petrich, CEO of Suntava, says the evolution from looking for host plant resistance to looking for a red dye alternative was entirely unintentional.
“It’s funny when you start these new ventures, it seems there’s always an element of serendipity,” says Petrich. “They were originally looking for a corn species that had resistance to rootworm, and never imagined their work would produce any type of benefit for the food and cosmetics industry.”
Once they discovered the anthocyanin in the plant, the team began breeding trials in Argentina and New Zealand, in addition to Minnesota, to expedite their research.
“We planted in both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres so we could have two generations in one year,” explains Lee. “First, we plant it in Minnesota, go through the growing and harvest season, then send the seed to Argentina and New Zealand to be planted in their spring. This allowed us to develop the anthocyanin trait at a faster pace than we could in Minnesota alone.”
The true turning point came when the Frenches decided to target their non-GMO corn to the health and wellness sector, not only as a good source of antioxidants, but as a natural alternative to synthetic dyes.
“Our new objective was to develop a product from organic materials using natural processes,” says Lee, “as opposed to synthetic dyes, like red dye #40, which are derived from petroleum.”
To keep the anthocyanin extraction process chemical-free, Suntava employs a simple water-based method. They start by steeping the grain in hot water. Since anthocyanins are water soluable, after steeping, the water is left a a dark purple color concentrate. When a small amount of the concentrate is added to a food application, like a beverage, the color is comparable to that of red dye #40.