Thanks to the Brits, U.S. grocery aisles are poised to become a little less colorful.

Eight months after the European Commission began requiring warning labels on food products containing certain food dyes and essentially forcing reformulation, food manufacturers are eyeing the brewing food-dye controversy in the America with concern and rolling out new products void of color or made with more subdued natural alternatives.

In August 2010, Pepperidge Farm announced it had reformulated its Goldfish Colors and Goldfish Colors Neon, replacing the FD & C reds and blues that had colored the products with beet, paprika, turmeric and watermelon extracts. The world’s largest snack maker, Frito-lay, followed suit in January of this year by announcing it had revamped its offerings to make 50 percent “all natural”—which means no artificial colors. The company now offers Sun Chips colored with Paprika and White Cheddar Cheetoes free of neon orange stain. Yoplait’s new “Simply Go-gurt” is notably free of the Technicolor dyes in its conventional tubes. Even the confectionary industry has jumped on board, with New England-based Necco Wafers rolling out candies colored with red beets, purple cabbage and cocoa powder.

Matt Incles, market intelligence manager for U.K.-based Leatherhead Food Research, says the Southhampton studies (which drew a link between six commonly used dyes and ADHD) had a “severe” impact on food companies operating in Europe. “The pressure came down from consumers and retailers to change their ingredients almost overnight,” Incles says. He believes a similar scenario is in store in the United States, as consumers, then retailers and ultimately government puts the screws to companies using petroleum-based dyes such as Red 40, Yellow 5 and 6 and Blue 1. (Whole Foods and Trader Joes already refuse to carry them).

But Incles and others warn that switching from artificial to natural coloring is “incredibly difficult and quite costly,” and that both manufacturers and consumers are in for a change.

 “Not only are companies expected to reformulate their products, but they are expected to produce them at the same standards of quality and the same cost as they did before,” Incles says.  “In some cases, that’s just not possible with natural colors. Consumers might look at a new ice cream and it just doesn’t look as bright as it used to. That puts people off.”

Pros and cons of natural options

According to Leatherhead, the global food colors market was worth $1.45 billion in 2009, up 16 percent from 2005. The vast majority of growth has been in natural food colorings, which now constitute 36.2 percent of all food colorings sold, and are expected to outpace synthetic varieties within a few years.

Color giants such as St. Louis-based Sensient Technologies Corp. and Denmark-based Chr. Hansen (which posted 46 percent growth in its colors and blends division in 2010) stand to gain the most from growth in natural color demand. But the anti-dye trend has also opened the doors to ingredient companies such as DSM, which recently introduced a natural beto-carotene coloring called CaroCare Nat 10 percent CWS Star; PL Thomas, which launched a lycopene-based red-substitute called Tomat-O-Red; and Louisville, Kentucky-based DD Williamson, which recently expanded its caramel coloring business to include an entire line of natural food dyes and a guide to help companies make the switch.

“In the past two years, we have had more and more customers come to us and say, ‘We are using synthetic and would like to replace it with natural coloring or introduce a parallel line,’” says Leslie Lynch sales manager for Food Ingredient Solution LLC, a distributor of natural coloring for food.

The most common natural color options include: anthocyanins (red cabbage, purple sweet potato, black carrots, red radishes or elderberry), which are used in place of the ubiquitous Red 40; carotenoids (from annatto, paprika and tomatoes), which are used in place of Yellow 6; Turmeric used in place of Yellow 6; and a somewhat gruesome sounding concoction called carmine (made of ground up beetle-like bugs), in place of reds.

The upside? Natural colors lack stigma and some even contain nutritional benefits (although they are used in such minute amounts that health claims would be hard to make in most cases).

The downside? They cost 10 to 20 times more, are seldom as bright, can change over time, vary in hue according to a product’s PH levels, and can change the taste of products.

“Working with natural colors is a real art form,” says food technologist Pete Maletto, a consultant with PTM Food Consulting.

In the case of carmine and turmeric, increased demand has also led to dramatic price increases in recent months.  And there is still not a viable natural alternative for green—a problem that beverage companies are painfully aware of.

“All of our products are in Whole Foods, but they won’t take our Apple Martini products,” says Larry Freedman, vice president of operations for gourmet mixer company Stirrings, which has successfully reformulated all but two of its products (its apple martini mixer and rimmer) with natural colorants in response to consumer and retailer demand.

Then, there is the gross factor.

“Squashed bugs? Tell me that’s good for you,” says dietician Bonnie Jortberg, who believes concerns about synthetic food dyes have been overblown and that natural alternatives have issues of their own (including being potential allergens).

Eyeing the future

Well aware that such problems exist color companies are racing to overcome them and assure that within a few years natural colors will be on par with their synthetic counterparts.

Sensient Technologies recently invested $16 million to expand its natural color facilities and DD Williamsons is also investing heavily in research and development.

“We don’t have the whole paint chip yet but we are working to fill the gaps,” says Jason Armao, applications project manager for DD Williams.

In the meantime, consultants like Maletto are urging clients with new products in the works to steer clear of color altogether (he recently helped formulate a clear children’s drink) or at least those made from synthetics:

 “I think eventually the government is going to say we need to get them out of the food and you will have a year or two to reformulate,” Maletto says. “You don’t want to have to go back and do it all over again.”