Tis the season for red and green everything, including a holiday favorite like M&M’s.

Less than two months ago, the iconic candy was marketed in orange, black and various shades of brown in celebration of fall and Halloween. But a few weeks before Halloween, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, made headlines for its consumer petition asking Mars Inc., Hackettstown, N.J., the maker of M&M’s, to stop coloring its products with artificial food dyes. M&M’s are one of many foods that use artificial dyes in the U.S. version, but mostly or only natural colorings in its European counterpart.

Synthetic food colorings have been the subject of controversy since the 1970s, when a pediatrician first suggested a correlation of intake to children’s behavior. They came under greater scrutiny in September 2007 after the results of a British study from the University of Southampton showed a correlation between artificial food colors and exacerbated hyperactive behavior in children. Even though many medical experts questioned the study’s protocol, it stirred consumer concern and continues to do so.

Since the Southampton study, the C.S.P.I. has taken the position all synthetic food colors should be banned in the United States. The reality is the C.S.P.I. is not a fan of any food colorings. The nonprofit group believes all colorings deceptively enhance the visual attractiveness of foods and beverages. This, of course, is no secret. Most of us eat with our eyes first, and then taste the food.

Earlier this year, the consumer group put White Plains, N.Y.-based The Dannon Co. in the hot seat for using carmine to enhance the pink color of several of its berry-flavored yogurts. The C.S.P.I. said Dannon’s practice cheats consumers who may expect the named fruits — and not insects, the source from which carmine is derived — are providing the color.

“I have nothing against people who eat insects, but when I buy strawberry yogurt I’m expecting yogurt and strawberries, and not red dye made from bugs,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the C.S.P.I.

The group’s position has some consumers thinking more about colors. According to the 2013 Food & Health Survey published earlier this year by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, Washington, the addition of color additives to food is a growing consideration when making food purchases. When the 1,006 survey participants were asked to think about product attributes influencing their decision to purchase packaged foods or beverages during the past year, 23% of respondents in 2013 considered if the product contained food colors. This is up four percentage points from 2012.

The considerations, and often concerns, have made color selection critical for dairy foods formulators. After all, most dairy products complement today’s consumers’ desire for clean, simple and natural foods. Undesirable colors can ruin that pretty picture.

Carmine is not artificial

In the world of color, perception is important. Even though carmine is in fact grown, as it is derived from a living substance, versus produced from petroleum chemicals, its sourcing does not resonate well with many natural foods enthusiasts.

The fact is there are only seven synthetic food colors used in the United States, which are classified by the Food and Drug Administration as color additives subject to certification in Title 21, Part 74 of the Code of Federal Regulations (21 CFR 74). They are certified with a F.D.&C. number indicating the additive has been tested for safety and is approved for use in foods, drugs and cosmetics, or F.D.&C.

Synthetic colors are available in two forms: water-soluble dyes and water-insoluble lakes. The colors are stable for a range of applications. Blends of certified colors may provide a wide palette of colors for most every food and beverage application, including all types of dairy products.

The F.D.A. also provides a list of color additives that are exempt from certification (21 c.f.r. 73). By default, the colors are often characterized as natural; however, product developers must remember that the F.D.A. does not consider any color added to a food as being natural unless the color is natural to the product itself.

For example, consumers expect strawberry milk to have a red hue. If strawberry juice is added for color, and providing that none of the other ingredients in the milk are characterized as artificial, the product may be labeled “all-natural strawberry milk.” Such a description is not possible if beet juice or carmine, both F.D.A.-recognized exempt-from-certification color additives, is used for a colorful boost. What is appropriate to say is “does not contain any artificial colors.”

“Unlike artificial colors, colors derived from natural sources are very specific to an application,” said Rajesh Cherian, manager-applications support, ROHA USA L.L.C., St. Louis. “This is because their stability is heavily influenced by factors such as acidity, process temperature, interaction with other additives and exposure to light.

“Working with colors from natural origins can be challenging due to issues like fading, browning, bleeding and even flavor changes. Partnering with a color supplier during the initial stages of product formulation is helpful in successfully avoiding negative issues of coloring in the later stages of product development, production and packaging.”

In the category of dairy, where there is a growing trend to use clear glass or plastic packaging to showcase a product, color selection is critical. Sometimes the clear view may be deleterious to the product’s appearance, as light accelerates coloring oxidation. This is particularly true with fruit preps used in yogurt products and ice cream.

Colors exempt from certification are obtained from a variety of sources, including plants, minerals, insects and fermentation, resources considered by many to be natural. But it is this generalization that has some color suppliers creating a point of differentiation by touting the fact their colors are derived solely from food, and most often, directly from fruits and vegetables. This is because carmine — a dye extracted from the dried, pulverized bodies of cochineal insects — is an exempt-from-certification color and continues to be controversial in terms of its naturalness.

The reality is in the legal world of food colorings, “natural” simply means it does not contain any legally defined artificial colors. It is no wonder there is growing consumer skepticism regarding natural food claims.

“In response, marketers understand that a growing number of shoppers read ingredient statements and are drawn to products that use colors made from recognizable fruits and vegetables,” said Kelly Newsome, corporate communications, GNT USA Inc., Tarrytown, N.Y.

Future is more than ‘not artificial’

Carmine is a vibrant and inexpensive food color. The C.S.P.I. originally took interest in carmine a number of years ago after learning some consumers experience allergic reactions after consuming carmine. This led the F.D.A. to require carmine to be listed on food labels when it is used.

“Carmine is a safe and commonly used red coloring that many food makers use,” said Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations at Dannon. “It is used in many food and other products because it is safe and it delivers the best color.

“Any Dannon product that contains carmine clearly identifies it by name and lists it as an ingredient on the product label to make it easily identifiable for anyone who prefers to avoid it. Anyone who has an allergy or preference to avoid a particular ingredient is already reading labels carefully, which we encourage, and can easily avoid it if they choose. Based on this we have not made any changes.”

Thus, out with the old and in with more than simply “not artificial.” This will be the trend as we march toward 2014 and beyond, said David Sprinkle, research director, Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md. Demand from consumers seeking more natural ingredients in their food products has forced the U.S. food industry to curtail its half-century-plus reliance on synthetic and artificial ingredients, according to Food Additives: The U.S. Market, a report from market research publisher Packaged Facts.

“The current climate toward additives is driving new innovations, especially but not exclusively for new natural formulations,” Mr. Sprinkle said. “Natural color additives, flavor enhancers, carbohydrate- and protein-based fat replacers, and preservatives are critical areas for new additive research, testing and development.”

Because color remains a critical factor in food appeal and marketability, growth in color additives is being driven largely by a transition, in many products and product lines, away from artificial colors and toward truly natural colors, said Mr. Sprinkle. The latter are becoming increasingly available in a growing number of colors. Cost and formulation issues remain critical factors within the natural color additives market. This is one reason carmine continues to be popular.

“We must recognize, however, that consumers are increasingly focusing on what’s going into their foods,” Mr. Cherian said. “In response, we recently introduced a range of 100% natural colorings produced exclusively via physical processes with absolutely no chemical intervention.

“Our wide range of brilliant and stable shades is extracted from vegetables, fruits, edible flowers, herbs, spices and algae. The final product is carefully calibrated to replicate the exact properties and ratios of color and sensory balance as in the original source.”

Ms. Newsome added, “Many fruit- and vegetable-based colors are actually blends of different highly colorful raw materials. This results in natural color products that not only match traditional synthetic colors, but also provide technical consistency and stability during processing.”

Many dairy processors, in particular cheese-makers, have long used natural colors to liven up their products. Most cheeses are naturally the color of milk unless they include microorganisms that contribute color. An example is the mold Penicillium glaucum, which creates blue veins in gorgonzola.

“Cheese-makers often add the water-soluble form of the carotenoid annatto to cheese to give it that cheesy orange color consumers have come to expect in natural cheddar,” said Jody Renner-Nantz, global application scientist, D.D. Williamson (DDW), Louisville, Ky. “Annatto has come a long way since that first graduated cylinder of annatto was poured into a vat of milk being stirred and heated and destined to becoming cheddar curd. Organic versions of annatto are now available, even in water-soluble powder form, for inclusion in cheese sauce mixes and toppings.”

Process cheese manufacturers use the oil-soluble form of annatto in sliced, shredded and other process cheese formats.

“Some natural colors are inherently oil soluble,” Ms. Renner-Nantz said. “Those that are water soluble have not always been options for high-fat dairy products due to their limited solubility. Today, however, there are naturally derived, oil-dispersible hues in colors such as brown, yellow, red, orange and even pink. These expand the pallet for color options that connote various flavors.”

Because consumers eat with their eyes, color additives will remain an important ingredient in dairy product formulations. The application, process, package, distribution demands and price all must be considered during the color selection process. Color can help grow dairy sales.