If life were a bowl of undoctored cherries, oh, what a bland world it would be.
Yes, that bright-red hue of the maraschino cherry is merely an illusion, a synthetic illusion, in fact.
Oregon-grown Royal Anne cherries lose most of their color, and flavor, when brined for months to become marvelous maraschinos. Before bottling the fruit, food packagers add almond oil, sugar and synthetic red dye No. 40 to grant maraschinos their royal-red status as a luxury condiment.
Researchers have tried to use beets, grapes and red cabbage to create natural colorants to clothe the bright-red cherries. So far, nothing has worked, except for recent radish experiments at Oregon State University.
It all started when Professor Ron Wrolstad noticed a chemical description of the pigment that makes radishes so red. It was there on Page 563 of a German reference book when Wrolstad saw it and thought, "That looks like a stable anthocyanin."
Don't ask about anthocyanins. Here's the important point:
The professor's suspicions, and subsequent radish research, are starting to line the tiny world of food-coloring research with the huge world of health-conscious consumers who would prefer naturally colored products such as maraschino cherries.
You see, the maraschino cherry was invented at OSU's food science and technology department in the 1920s. Professor Ernest Wiegand created the brining process as a way to preserve cherries and market them year-round.
People throughout the world eat nearly 60,000 tons of maraschinos, most of which are grown each year in the Willamette Valley. But despite seven decades of culinary progress, no one has found an affordable alternative for coloring maraschinos.
The cherry industry may shift toward radishes, as OSU researchers further Wrolstad's notion that the humble root is the gateway to a new maraschino market.
In fact, the radish research is so promising, several cherry processing companies and marketing groups have backed the OSU project with several thousand dollars in donations.
"We're really excited about the possibility of marketing a naturally colored product," said Rich Bertellotti, vice president of Forest Grove-based Gray & Co., the world's biggest maraschino bottling operation.
"Eventually, we think we can expand our market to health-conscious people who are afraid of artificial colorants," Bertellotti said.
Wrolstad launched the project by assigning radish experiments to OSU students in a vegetable pigments class in 1993. Graduate student Monica Giusti was so intrigued by the idea, she made it a topic of her master's thesis, which she completed last spring.
With the help of research assistant Bob Durst, Giusti extracted strong doses of the red pigment found mostly in the skins of radishes. Then she bottled maraschino cherries with a variety of concentrates to see how the hue would change over time.
Six months later, Giusti and Durst found that the naturally colored maraschinos maintained their bright-hue, despite being stored at room temperature and being exposed to light.
"I was really surprised with our results," said Giusti, a doctoral student from Lima, Peru. "Everything has been very encouraging from the very beginning."
The findings intrigued Oregon bottling companies, who see natural maraschinos as an entree to the fast-growing organic food market and to overseas markets where synthetic dyes are shunned.
So far, no one has challenged the use of red dye No. 40, which is considered a safe food colorant. But maraschino producers say they need a natural color alternative in case the dye falls out of favor with consumers or FDA officials.
"In a scenario like that, the radish pigment could be a savior for our entire industry," said Bob Thompson, president of the Dalles-based Oregon Cherry Growers Inc., the second-largest maraschino maker in the world.
Next year, the OSU researchers will move experiments to a small campus processing plant to find ways to mass-produce the radish extract. They may not find a quick path to the $500-million market for natural colorants, however.
First, the researchers must find a way to remove a faint vegetable flavor in the radish extract. Also, FDA approval could be costly to obtain before naturally colored cherries are allowed on store shelves.
Health-related research could require $2 million and months of lab work, depending on the amount of testing that federal officials eventually require, Professor Wrolstad said.
Still, industry experts hope that the researchers succeed. Food manufactures could use a natural bright-red colorant in a variety of products, from candy to Kool-Aid, said Gabe Lauro, president of La Monde Ltd., a California company specializing in natural colorants.
"I wish them all the luck in the world," Lauro said of the researchers. "The lack of natural alternatives makes it very difficult for a guy like me to create a rainbow of colors."