Be it Red 40 or Yellow 6, food dyes are hiding in a surprising number of food and bev products on your local grocery shelf. Sometimes these dyes are made from natural ingredients like beet juice, turmeric, or even bugs (which means they’re not vegan, and also kinda gross). But natural dyes aren’t as vibrant or heat-resistant as their artificial counterparts, which are typically made from petroleum (also gross).
Michroma, a new company currently participating in science accelerator IndieBio, is out to recast the food dye industry. The startup is developing a platform to create dyes through fermentation, specifically mushroom root fermentation. Michroma scientists use CRISPR to edit the genes in particular strains of fungi so that when they’re placed in a bioreactor they secrete vibrant, colorful dyes.
Ricky Cassini and Mauricio Braia founded the company a year ago in Argentina before moving to San Francisco for IndieBio. Cassini, who is the CEO, told me over the phone this week that Michroma has raised $250,000 from IndieBio and previously raised $200,000 in Argentina.
According to Cassini, Michroma’s fermentation process could usher in a more sustainable production method for food dyes. In addition to being free from stuff like petroleum and crushed-up bugs, Michroma’s dyes are incredibly scalable to produce since the funghi require very little light, space and energy. Cassini also told me that their fermented dyes are significantly more heat-resistant than plant-derived natural dyes.
Michroma is currently focused on developing red dye. The company can already make orange and yellow. Next up it’ll tackle blue, green and black food colorings.
For now, the startup is creating dyes at a lab scale and, according to Cassini, their products are already cost-competitive with plant- and insect-based dyes. Michroma will sell its dyes B2B to large food corporations (as well as cosmetic and pharma companies), but that won’t happen for a while yet. Cassini said that since their technology is new for food dye, they need to go through something called a “color additive petition” to have it recognized as safe to eat. That could take up to two years. By that time, Cassini said that the fermented dyes will cost around the same as those made with petroleum.
However, he’s hoping that it won’t take a full two years before they can start selling. If he’s right, maybe soon you’ll be able to scan the back of a bag of Dorito’s and see “fermented dye” listed instead of, you know, petroleum and bugs.