According to the FDA, Americans ingest five times as much synthetic dye (roughly 60 mg daily) today than they did in 1955, with 15 million pounds consumed in 2009 alone. Vivid blues, reds, greens, oranges and yellows serve to lure picky consumers (often kids) in a competitive food market, and often impersonate “real food.” Case in point: General Mills’ Total Blueberry Pomegranate Cereal actually contains no blueberries or pomegranates, and instead uses Red #40 and Blue #2 to mimic the presence of the colorful fruit.

But food scientists note that color also plays a more practical role, restoring hues lost or muted in the manufacturing process, or turning naturally brown and gray concoctions into something more appealing to the modern eye.

 “Without added color, some of these foods would look unappetizing,” explains Leslie Lynch, a sales manager at Food Ingredient Solutions LLC, which formulates natural food colors.