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Excited by the Very Thought of Hue

A color-happy scientist searches for organic ways to bring vivid shades to our groceries in response to the craze for unadulterated foods.

March 12, 2000|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To care about the color of cat food--to really fuss over, say, a roast-beefy red--you must loathe hues of rust and old gravy. You must adore the way that an Italian grape skin extract can hold its purple with such might during the heat of pasteurization that it won't brown out (this is tricky, though). No matter where you turn, the world must explode at you in tangerines and peacock blues and glorious color, the way it does for Gabriel J. Lauro, food scientist.

Lauro is the unpaid director of the Natural Color Resource Center at Cal Poly Pomona, which opened last year. The center is the first of its kind, he says, a place to dream up natural alternatives to the red 40s and blue 1s and other artificial colorings, and to collect scientific papers on the subject.

This at a time when the public zeal for everything au naturel extends even to cat food, and the federal government is proposing tighter standards for foods labeled organic (including banning "Frankenstein foods" with genetically engineered grains from the category, for instance). In the last five years, organic and natural-food sales have increased by 15% to 20%, exceeding $5 billion last year, according to the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

Lauro is working to sate the tastes of baby boomers who want all-natural rice puffs with ginkgo biloba, and hold the red dye No. 3, please, and make it pretty too. And they want the chow that their cats eat to look like the three squares that are on their own dining table.

Lauro gave up retirement to run the center because it was his dream to start a public resource center on natural color. At 69, his hands look like a kindergartner's, streaked with Crayola-like colors.

"Now I'm like a pig in mud," he crows.

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It's not that there's anything wrong with synthetic colorings, says Lauro, who doesn't eschew them in his diet. But the marketing cachet of "all natural" demands that the industry explore the possibilities of bugs and seeds and such.

And so Lauro tinkers around in a laboratory with jars labeled blueberry powder, Indian turmeric and other polysyllabic stuff of his science, a salesman for natural colors. "Show you how this baby works," he offers with glee, turning a clear solution the color of raspberry with a drop of red cabbage extract.

Crazy for Color From a Young Age

Even as a kid in the Bronx, Lauro was a color fiend. He noticed what most boys did not--the claret red of wines, the fire in sunsets. Perhaps his love of color came from his father, an artist from Sorrento, Italy, who painted angels and saints on the ceilings of cathedrals in deep reds, forest greens and cobalt blues--until plaster fell into his eyes and burned them. After that, his eyes never did see colors right, and he ended up a house painter.

Lauro was 12 and began tagging along on house painting jobs. He would eyeball the hues and shades, and tell his dad when the color was right.

"It was tragic, yeah," Lauro says, his warm, quick voice slowing to a murmur. "But he was a very good artist so I may have inherited some of that; I don't know."

He didn't grow up thinking his life would be ruled by colors. In high school, he thought about becoming some sort of a scientist. One summer, as a teenager, Lauro worked in a frozen food packaging plant. In the Army, an officer suggested that he look into food science, and in 1960, he earned a doctorate in the field from Rutgers University.

He later became a director of research at Hunt-Wesson Inc. in Fullerton, working in the tomato line and a bit with popcorn. In 1981, he became president and co-owner of a California-based company that specialized in natural color ingredients.

In 1990, after selling the company, Lauro retired. He had thought about spending more time with his wife and two grown sons, doing some gardening and picking up a paintbrush again. As an artist, he favored a bold palette, with renderings of rain-fed giant waves splashed with lemon yellows and crimson reds or chestnut horses galloping out of a dark canyon.

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But a year before his planned retirement, at a food industry meeting, he happened to sit next to Wayne R. Bidlack, dean of Cal Poly Pomona's College of Agriculture.

What he really wanted to do, Lauro told Bidlack, was start a research center, a place dedicated to the emerging science of natural colors and the nurturing of graduate students in the field. A repository for research on the subject. Sure, the labs in the big private food companies experiment with natural colors. But they don't share information, and their work is specific to a single cookie type or product.

"He was internationally recognized as a leading natural color expert," says Bidlack, who was tracking the surging consumer interest in natural and organic foods. "A little bell goes off in my head. . . ."

Bidlack called with an offer: no salary or benefits but a lab bench, his blessing, and the imprimatur of his institution.

"This was a dream!" Lauro says. His retirement was over.

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