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Behind the Rainbow

The slick-soft coating on buffered aspirin, the sparkles in chewing gum, those pricey little inkjet cartridges that print your vacation photos—everything the world consumes has a color. And a lot of those colors are made right here, in a nondescript set of buildings on the near North Side.

Sensient’s natural colors come from sources like carrots, pumpkins, beets, turmeric, paprika, grape skins, berries, and carmelized sugar...not coal tar.

Sensient’s natural colors come from sources like carrots, pumpkins, beets, turmeric, paprika, grape skins, berries, and carmelized sugar...not coal tar.

Photograph Courtesy of Sensient Technologies

The main building is long and low, with a flippant yellow squiggle over the first half of its name: SENSIENT. I turn in, drive alongside the tall black cyclone fence, and brake behind a delivery truck.

A guard walks toward my Mini Cooper, waving me away.

Oh, I think, he wants the truck to come in first. That’s fine.

The truck rolls past the guard shack. I accelerate gently. The guard comes straight at me, raises both arms over his head, and pushes out and down like an angry referee.

When I roll down my window, he makes it quite clear that I should leave the premises.

One doesn’t just drop in on Sensient.

Three months later, I return, armed with an appointment made long-distance with the company headquarters in Milwaukee. This time, I’m told to leave my vehicle and enter the guard shack. There I am photographed, my driver’s license is retained, a badge is printed for me, and I am directed to sign in at the desk when I enter the building.

This is becoming a challenge.

In the lobby, I cross my legs demurely and wait. The company’s director of corporate communications, Ellen Grinde, has flown in from Milwaukee, and she and her St. Louis counterpart will flank Paul Manning; this is his first media interview. Manning is the general manager of Sensient’s Color Group—and the son of Sensient’s legendary chairman and CEO, Kenneth P. Manning.

It’s a warm day, but the women are wearing pantyhose, per the company dress code, and skirted female versions of Manning’s business suit.

I’m wearing a navy dress I hope is long enough to conceal the absence of pantyhose.

Behind me, a glass window reveals the most beautiful laboratory I’ve ever seen, pure white, but sparkling with color: glass vials of crimson and orange, trays of sparkling metallic blue, jars of lime-green powder… It’s like somebody melted Crayolas all over one of Richard Meier’s white Modernist temples.

We settle ourselves in the conference room and chat about St. Louis weather, Manning’s résumé (chemistry degree from Stanford University, MBA from Northwestern University), and the psychology of color. Finally, easing my sticky palms off one of the clear plastic place mats protecting the table, I ask the question: Just why is Sensient Color Group so…guarded?

Manning’s first answer is the simplest: Because Sensient deals with food. The St. Louis plant makes color—a godlike act in itself—and 60 percent of the corporation’s color sales go into foods and beverages. Sensient cannot risk tampering or contamination.

Has its super security ever been breached? “No, and that’s very reassuring to our customers,” Manning says. “Very secure supply, very secure intellectual property.”

Sensient’s full name, after all, is Sensient Technologies: Sensient for “sensory” plus “ingredients,” Technologies because so much of the manufacturing depends on chemical and engineering innovations.

Other St. Louis color applications include inkjet-printer inks and pharmaceutical colors and coatings. But what tips the scale, Manning says, are the food colors, used in sports drinks and carbonated beverages; yogurts and cheeses; candies and frostings; kibbles and other pet foods—“even the blue sand in my son’s sandbox.”

Every one of those colors is run through rigorous tests for purity, safety, and stability, and Sensient routinely screens all of its raw materials for common pathogens, contaminants, and heavy metals. But its research chemists also go out of their way to look for trouble, routinely investigating new screening protocols they could add.

“We look for what we believe will be an issue tomorrow,” Manning says, grave and earnest as an FBI agent in the 1950s. “We are not waiting for the next food scare.”

The second reason for secrecy’s more intriguing. In the last two years, Sensient has invested $50 million worldwide in the making of natural colors, from better emulsion capability in Hamburg, Germany, to a brand-new facility in Guang-zhou, China. And here in St. Louis, a $16 million, 25,000-square-foot facility will be the largest and most advanced natural-colors plant in North America.

The Color Group has rather a lot of trade secrets. And those secrets are about to be worth a whole lot of money. The “clean-label movement” is growing; consumers want to buy products that are “natural,” free of artificial dyes and chemicals, preservatives, and genetic modifications. Europeans are even demanding clean-label candy.

In 2007, a study conducted by Southampton University in England found a link between hyperactivity in children and six synthetic colors. This July, a law went into force across Europe requiring all products containing one of those colors to bear a printed warning.
Manning calls it “a de facto ban on the use of these dyes in Europe.”

His tone is carefully neutral. He has reason to exult: Sensient is perfectly positioned to make the natural dyes European manufacturers will be clamoring for, if these scares stick. But he can’t emphasize the safety of natural dyes without alarming all of the customers currently buying Sensient’s synthetic dyes.

“Closer to home, all synthetic food colors in the U.S. are regulated by the FDA, and each color must be certified before it can be used in food,” he notes, stepping gingerly onto the balance beam. “Food colors are arguably one of the most highly regulated food ingredients. The FDA has publicly declared that synthetic food dyes are safe for human consumption.”

Yes, and the dyes approved include several of those now known as “the Southampton Six.” It’s not only the Brits whose brows are furrowed. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has blacklisted even more synthetic dyes—its list of eight includes FD&C (certified by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act) Yellows 5 and 6, Reds 3 and 40, Blues 1 and 2, Green 3, and Orange B—for possible links to childhood behavior problems. When CSPI formally petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban these dyes, the document bore an impressive list of signatures—including that of Dr. John W. Olney, professor of psychiatry, neuropathology, and neuropsychopharmacology at Washington University School of Medicine.

Prodded relentlessly, the FDA finally agreed to review the effects of artificial food dyes on hyperactivity and learning disabilities in children. In April, an FDA report stated, “Both the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority independently reviewed the results from this [Southampton] study and each has concluded that the study does not substantiate a link between the color additives that were tested and behavioral effects.”

True. But the Southampton study looked at mixtures of the six synthetic colors and the preservative sodium benzoate. The EFSA tested the colors alone.

Far from reassured, the U.K. has asked manufacturers for a voluntary ban on the Southampton Six. Britain’s been moving in that direction for several years now, and the “same” foods are made quite differently across the pond, CSPI’s Nutrition Action Healthletter reported in October 2008. In the U.K., the color in McDonald’s strawberry sundae sauce actually comes from strawberries; here, it comes from Red 40. The Brits’ Fanta orange soda is colored with pumpkin and carrot extracts; ours, with Red 40 and Yellow 6. Many American varieties of Kraft’s Oscar Mayer Lunchables contain artificial food colors, but the British versions do not; Starburst Fruit Chews, Skittles, and M&Ms contain artificial colors here, not in the U.K.

According to the FDA, Americans are exposed to five times as much artificial coloring as we were 50 years ago. In 1955, the amount of food dye certified for use was 12 milligrams per capita; in 2007, it was 59 milligrams per capita. Synthetic colors seep in without notice: We eat foods like Betty Crocker’s Au Gratin 100% Real Potatoes, which are colored with Yellow 5 and 6—both derived from coal tar.

Now, the demand for natural colors is suddenly outpacing demand for synthetics, and Sensient, which makes both, is responding. It has sophisticated technology it won’t explain (it does mention doing “supercritical CO2 extraction”) to pull the coloring agents from botanicals. It has a Fusion Precise Natural Color system that lets customers specify not just a particular color, but also a subtle shade of that color. And it has a head start: 60 years’ experience with natural colors.

“The food industry is very fragmented,” Manning notes. “I could probably come up with a list of 40 or 50 companies that could compete with us. But I don’t think many share our level of focus or investment. And making color, flavor, and fragrance? None that I know of.”

As even junk-food manufacturers start craving “all-natural” labels, won’t start-ups try to slice into Sensient’s rainbow? “Color is not something you can just pick up tomorrow,” Manning remarks. “I think if you were going to start from scratch today, just going into naturals, you would have a very difficult time.”

“So what are some of the drinks and foods that use Sensient colors?” I ask innocently.

“Other than water or coffee, just about any food or drink out there has some color,” Manning replies, “and we may be a part of any one of those things.”

I wait. The boilerplate on the website said the company’s customers “include major international manufacturers representing some of the world’s best-known brands.” Surely he could divulge one or two of the friendlier ones?

“Our customers are very guarded,” he says. His voice even drops. “They would never want us to name them. They consider color part of their proprietary technology.

“We have six groups of food customers,” he adds helpfully. “Beverage, dairy, processed foods, baked foods, confection, and pet food.”
OK then.

“Color is the one ingredient that literally touches every single product a company has,” Manning continues. “If it’s off, it’s off. It’s an immediate disqualification.”

If it’s on, however, it’s a product’s best marketing ploy. “Color is the first thing you recognize in a product,” Manning says. “The response is pretty universal, and it’s very linked to the flavor. Studies show that if you color fruit punch yellow, people think they’re drinking OJ.” (Remember Heinz’s green ketchup? Fun idea; it bombed instantly.) “Orange represents family and wholesomeness and community. Blue is an appetite suppressant; red tends to be an appetite accelerator. It raises blood pressure and makes you want to eat.” (Note fast-food restaurant interiors.)

The total number of available colors? “North of about 3,000,” Manning says, “and in theory, the number’s infinite. You are limited only by your imagination, the customer’s imagination, and some of the chemical properties.” The most experimental shades tend to show up in kids’ foods—cereals, drinks, candy. Other companies have classic colors that are so brand-identified, they’ll never change. (Can you imagine, on a snowy day, pouring navy-blue Campbell’s tomato soup?) Some customers beg for color advice for a new product; others show up demanding a particular color, like royal-blue mustard for a Blues hockey game or Shrek green to induce a whiny child to take her vitamins. (Note: Those are purely hypothetical examples. If a Sensient customer did make one of those requests, we wouldn’t know. And if we found out, they’d have to kill us.)

Looking at Sensient from Jefferson Avenue, you’d never guess the Color Group covers almost 30 acres and fills 495,000 square feet of manufacturing, warehouse, laboratory, and office space. The instant Manning offers a tour, protection materializes: shoe covers, a hairnet, safety glasses, a hard hat. Feeling a pointed stare, I hurriedly remove my earrings and necklace.

“Only about 25 percent of the plant is air-conditioned,” Manning says cheerfully. “Half a million square feet [of Sensient’s 30 acres] are under roof. Then we’ve got green space that gives us room for expansion, a little buffer.”

I confess that I never even knew Sensient existed, and he grins: “We sort of like not being known around here as a manufacturing site.”
Led by Dave Gebhardt, director of manufacturing, we enter a red hallway. “Dave is trying to raise your blood pressure,” Manning jokes. We pass through checkpoints with hand-washing stations and sanitizers, then come out in a room filled with giant vats.

“We are the only U.S.-based company capable of producing all seven FD&C dyes, and we’re also the only U.S.-based color manufacturer,” Manning says. “That means the FDA can walk into our plant anytime they want. If they want to visit one of our competitors overseas, the competitor would know months ahead of time. So there’s a real advantage to U.S.-based manufacturing. Consumers ought to be asking for that.”

Gebhardt points out different mixers, some high shear (mixing with speed and turbulence), others gentler. “One batch of Red 40 will turn into just over 20 million gallons of—” Gebhardt names a common drink, and both Manning and Grinde blanch. “Fruit punch,” someone hurriedly suggests. “Let’s just say fruit punch.”

In the next room, they’re already ramping up production of natural colors. Warm colors—yellows, oranges, reds—are easy. But that unnatural, glowing blue we gulp after a softball game and Europeans shun reflexively? Only artifice, thus far, can create it.

The natural colors, Sensient extracts from fruits, vegetables, and even insects. A brilliant magenta comes from carmine, derived from the dried, crushed bodies of pregnant female cochineals (scale insects found on South American cacti). If that doesn’t sound like much improvement over chemicals, you might be right; carmine’s a little controversial. It can cause allergic reactions, and in January 2009, the FDA began requiring it to be listed by name on a food label.

But most of the natural colorings are as happy and wholesome as they sound. There’s beet juice for pink, beta carotene for a nice bright orange; turmeric for mustard yellow; and anthocyanin, extracted from grape skins and black carrots, for many shades of red. Chlorophyll’s great for green, and it’s used throughout Europe, but oddly enough, it’s not yet approved by the FDA for food uses.

The trick with natural colors is that they don’t start out standardized, the way synthetic ingredients do. One carrot farmer might experiment with a new fertilizer; somebody else might use a different soil. So it’s a challenge to make natural colors stable. Ancient peoples added ground mud or silt, rich in iron salts, to bark or root bases in an attempt to keep natural colors from fading. Sensient has more sophisticated methods to make sure its colors withstand fickle changes in heat, light, and humidity.

It also has special emulsion technology, so it can force things like oil and water to mix smoothly and stay mixed. Ever see a jar of juice that had settled into layers of different colors, or had sediment in the bottom? You probably didn’t buy it. We associate off colors with spoilage. Would you eat gray bacon? Would you drink a Mountain Berry Blast Powerade if it were the color of dishwater, not the brilliant blue of an Avatar warrior?

Color has meaning.

In the applications lab, chemist Emina Goodman shows off Sensient’s Spectra-Flecks, which let clients sprinkle a rainbow of colors—sometimes flavored colors—throughout icing or candy, or atop popcorn. “It’s a gum-based product, and it starts as a sheet,” Goodman says. “I don’t want to go into details, but it’s a colored base, it gets dried and cooked, and we put it through different steps and then shred it into smaller particles.”

Moving on to the Color Changers, she unscrews the lid of an orange powder and insists playfully, before she pours it into a glass of water, “Guess what color it’s going to be!” OK, I can do this. Not orange. Maybe blue, its opposite on the color wheel?

I’m overthinking. “Green!” she exclaims, as emerald swirls through the water. The green color comes from a dye, which dissolves in water; the orange of the powder came from what’s called a “lake,” which dissolves in fat. Dyes hide in a dry ingredient, and lakes show up. So Sensient created an orange powder that will release green dye in water.

Goodman slides forward SensiPearl, a lustrous mica-based coating that looks like the inside of a seashell. “Mica is like a plate,” she explains. “You attach titanium dioxide and get this glowy, shimmery product, because of the way the light reflects onto the plate through the titanium dioxide.” The SensiPearl process started in cosmetics, where iridescence is everything, but it has spread to cereals, frosting, gelatin desserts, candy, gum, and sugar coating.

“Now we’re entering the realm of the natural applications,” Manning announces, and I can almost see velvet curtains sliding open. Ladies and gentlemen: the prills. Sensient’s created fat-based particles that are heat-activated color changers. “You embed them into your dough and bake your cookie, and this rainbow of colors pops up,” Goodman says.

“You can present color in a different form,” Manning adds, “so it’s not a solid; it’s speckled. Oatmeal, you can coat with beige and at a certain heat, that beige breaks, and under that you have red oatmeal!”

You can tell the man has kids.

“We also have an emulsion to show you,” he adds. “When something’s not sufficiently emulsified, you will see a stained cap or sediment in the bottom, all types of awful things! You can even see it in dairy and baked goods, this separation of components. Now look at ours: Not only is this stable, it’s crystal clear. There’s no staining. Every bottle looks the same. And our product doesn’t fade.”

We look at vials, swatches, coatings. Brilliance, luminosity, tone, hue, brightness, darkness, opacity, translucence, saturation, thinness…our eyes have a million ways to measure color. But Sensient makes those measurements precise. Its colorimeter quantifies a color’s lab value, so when you go to mix a new batch, you know it’s exact. Then there’s the light box, designed to make a color hold still. “You have the opacity of the bottle, the solution the color’s in, the ambient light in the room—what color is something, really?” Manning asks philosophically. “’Cause color’s all about how much light it absorbs.”

What he’s still not talking about is the reservoir of secrets: the company culture, which is a blend of IBM, the Navy, and the Knights of Malta.
In other words, a reflection of Kenneth Manning, who grew up a loyal, conservative, Eastern Seaboard sort of Catholic; worked as an IBM sales rep; and rose to Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

His employees refer to him, even in his absence, as Mister Manning.

Asked what it was like growing up with such a father, Paul Manning freezes. “Guess he doesn’t talk about that in the annual report!” he quips nervously when the silence builds. Later, he asks if we can strike what he said about his father, to keep the story more professional. I remind him that he never really answered the question; there is nothing to strike.

Only when he emails this statement do I begin to understand his hesitation: “Every General Manager in the business is responsible for producing results for our shareholders. These shareholders demand results. If I do not produce results, then it does not matter what my last name is. I consider that to be the definition of a meritocracy.”

It’s not easy being the big boss’ son.

Especially when the big boss has announced he will retire at the end of 2012.

Kenneth P. Manning has stamped Sensient with his own personality. (The company has reciprocated: lists his total compensation for 2009 at more than $4.4 million.)

His son shares many of his values—formality, for example. “If you are a professionally run business that is very precise and very exact, it works in all ways,” Paul explains. “How you dress, how you behave, the decisions you make.” He relaxes into a grin. “Plus, if a suit fits well, it’s pretty comfortable!”

Beneath that suit, though, Paul Manning seems far more open than his father—who grants media interviews only to a few select trade publications. Paul emphasizes listening to all ideas and feedback; under his father’s rule, Sensient is famously uptight, pouncing fast—and sometimes with a lawsuit—on any public criticism.

So…will Paul be the new CEO? “I am not the successor,” he replies succinctly.

“Who will be?” I zap back.

“Historically, public corporations would describe a COO as the CEO successor,” he replies, and I give up. Sensient doesn’t gab, and it doesn’t act on impulse. Paul’s still young, relatively new to the color game. He’s proving himself: Last year, the St. Louis group’s revenues grew across all product lines. First-quarter Color Group revenue was $108 million, up 24 percent from last year’s first quarter. Second quarter saw the group hit a record-setting $113 million in revenue, up 20.5 percent year-over-year. Food and beverage color sales were also up 20 percent.

And not one employee has been laid off in the recession, Manning’s quick to point out. “No pay cuts, no furloughs. Our employees are the most invaluable resource we have.”

They guard the colors.

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