General Mills announced Monday it will remove all artificial colors and flavors from its cereals beginning with Trix, Cocoa Puffs and Reese's Puffs by the end of 2015.

Golden Valley-based General Mills appears to be the first major U.S. cereal maker to systemically extract artificial colors. But it's the latest of several big food companies to dump artificial colors and flavors.

As more consumers have become wary of processed foods, they've gravitated toward "clean" labels free of stuff that doesn't look natural.

"Consumers increasingly want the ingredient list for their cereal to look like what they pull out of their pantry," Jim Murphy, president of General Mills U.S. cereal business, told the Star Tribune. They don't want labels chock-full of "colors with numbers and ingredients you can't pronounce."

That means Red 40, Yellow 6, Blue 1 and other artificial dyes common in some cereals — particularly kids cereal — will give way to colors made from spices and fruit and vegetable juice concentrates.

Murphy said that over 60 percent of General Mills cereals already have no artificial colors or flavors. By the end of 2016, the company expects 90 percent of its cereal portfolio to be free of them, with the remainder going natural in 2017.

Lucky Charms, Count Chocula and other cereals with marshmallows will take the longest to reformulate. Marshmallows are more difficult to retool — without effecting taste, texture and appearance — than grain flakes or puffs.

Cereal is General Mills' largest U.S. business, and the company and Kellogg each own about 30 percent of the nation's cereal market. Trix and Cocoa Puffs are historic kid favorites, while Lucky Charms — one of General Mills' top selling cereals — does well in the adult market, too.

But the U.S. cereal business has been declining the past few years, as consumers move toward protein-rich options from Greek yogurt to old standards like eggs. Murphy said he "didn't think there's any question" that removing artificial colors and flavors would help the beleaguered cereal market.

Packaged food makers and restaurant companies of many stripes have concluded that artificial anything isn't good for business these days. Over the past month, Subway and Taco Bell announced they were dropping artificial colors and flavors. Nestlé earlier this year said it would remove artificial flavors from its chocolate candy, while Kraft nixed the stuff from its mac and cheese.

While such artificial-be-gone announcements are propelled by marketing, companies are responding to consumers' changing perceptions.

General Mills started tinkering with artificial colors and flavors in cereal about two years ago. Such product reformulations can be expensive, though Mills declined to disclose the cost of its cereal project. "We are investing money into the product and we are not going to pass that down to consumers," Murphy said.

Reformulations are also risky because consumers might reject them, and not only for taste, but for color. "The look is important," Murphy said. "People taste with their eyes sometimes."

Tastewise, General Mills' cereal overhaul should be "imperceptible" to consumers, Murphy said. Reese's Puffs made with natural vanilla essentially taste the same as those containing artificial vanilla. They look about the same, too, though the brown is a bit duller in the natural version.

Consumers are most likely to notice a difference in brightly colored cereals. They'll lose some of their sheen.

"Trix is known for color, so this hit Trix pretty hard," said Kate Gallager, a General Mills cereal developer. Trix is basically sweetened corn puffs tinted red, yellow, orange, purple, green and blue. Artificial dyes for the first four colors will be replaced by concoctions of turmeric — a yellow spice — and juice concentrates made from radishes, strawberries and blueberries.

The new naturally-colored Trix will not contain green and blue puffs. It's difficult to replicate blue food colors with natural ingredients, and blue is essential to creating green. Not that General Mills didn't try a natural alternative.

"It didn't deliver the brighter color and it was imparting a flavor we didn't want," Gallager said.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003