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The Future of Food May Be Less Bright Thanks to Natural Colorings

Your cereal bowl may become less colorful when General Mills eliminates artificial dyes.

Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

From Subway to Kraft and Papa John's, food companies are ditching artificial colorings left and right in an effort to appease consumers. However, replacing some of those vibrant colors in your cereal isn't easy. The Chicago Tribune reports that companies like General Mills are having a hard time finding good, natural alternatives to traditional food coloring recipes.

For instance, when the reformulated recipe for Trix cereal hits grocery store shelves later this year, it won't feature blue and green pieces, and reds — made with radish and strawberry pigment — will also look different. "We haven't been able to get that same vibrant color," Kate Gallager, a cereal developer at General Mills, told the Tribune. Fruit, vegetable, and spice-extracted dyes are also more expensive and sensitive to heat and acidity.

The full spectrum of natural hues takes time to develop and receive approval from federal regulators. Blue and green coloring didn't become widely available until 2013, when the FDA finally approved the use of spirulina extract in gum and candy. Algae has also helped fill in the natural color gap. A color company called Sensient Technologies, told the Tribune that approximately three-quarters of its new projects are related to developing natural colors for consumption. Sensient is currently working on a yellow derived from safflower and a process that "deodorizes" paprika for use as an orange dye in beverages.

Critics of synthetic colorings often cite a study that links them to childhood hyperactivity and accuse companies of using dyes to mask the absence of certain advertised ingredients. Still, companies like Hershey are sticking to the old recipes until brighter colors can be developed. "We have to deliver bold colors and flavors, or people will stop buying," Will Papa, a research and development officer at the candy company, told the Tribune.

Food colorings aren't the only ingredients receiving a makeover. Changing consumer tastes are driving demand in the restaurant industry for more ethical products, including antibiotic-free poultry and responsibly raised pork. Meanwhile, companies like Panera are betting that customers will eventually get used to less-vibrant colorings.