Nearly one quarter of consumers today report reading nutritional labels to avoid artificial additives, so in an effort to appease a more modern, health conscious customer, food companies are dropping artificial ingredients. It's a widespread movement that includes some of the biggest names in the food industry. General Mills is removing artificial flavors and colors from all of its cereals and Kraft ditched the artificial colors and preservatives from its iconic mac and cheese.
But what does this really mean for the consumer? Is it a true menu facelift or a marketing ploy?
Food Companies Are Taking Baby Steps
Food companies are making positive moves in the right direction but many are still taking baby steps. It's important to read between the lines. How many of their products are actually changing considering how huge these companies really are in the first place? How far reaching are these changes in terms of products?
For example, General Mills said that 90 percent of its cereals will be free of artificial flavors and colors by the end of 2016. This is great news, but General Mills is way more than just cereal, it's baked goods, pizza rolls, and prepared meals. The company owns a host of other processed food brands including Betty Crocker, Bisquick, Pillsbury, Hamburger Helper, and Totino's. What is it doing to make these brands healthier? How many products still contain artificial ingredients?
While Kraft Foods removed artificial colors and preservatives from its Original Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, what about its numerous other products like JELL-O, Cool Whip, and Stove Top Stuffing? Does Kraft plan to change up these products as well?
What's Being Added To the Ingredient List?
As these companies begin to remove artificial ingredients, what are they replacing them with to keep the flavor consistent? Are natural flavors that much better than artificial flavors? It helps to understand what exactly artificial flavors are in the first place.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines artificial flavors as substances that impart flavor and are not "derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof."
Natural flavors, on the other hand, are sourced from "a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root" and so on. And while that may seem innately healthy, a number of not-so-healthy substances can be derived from nature. Natural flavors can still contain dangerous ingredients. For example, natural wood smoke flavor is made from liquid smoke. Liquid smoke is captured, condensed, and filtered smoke that's mixed with water after burning wood at a high temperature. But liquid smoke contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are known carcinogens. Then there's castoreum, a mixture of the anal secretions and the urine of beavers, which is used to make natural vanilla and raspberry flavorings.
These flavors, whether natural or artificial, are created by professional flavorists and do not have to be fully disclosed on food labels. If the label reads natural flavors, you could be eating a supposedly natural ingredient made of beaver urine.
That's pretty gross.
What's more, the Environmental Working Group, which rates the health of food based on a number of criteria including genetic modification, pesticide residue, processing, and ingredients, gives foods with natural and artificial flavors the same rating because it says that one is no better than the other.
So when a food company claims it's replacing artificial flavors with natural flavors, be wary. Read the ingredients label carefully and look for ingredients that you recognize. If you can't find the ingredient in your pantry, you may want to put the product back on the shelf.
The good news is that food companies are responding to consumers and removing unhealthy ingredients. Panera, for example, changed its entire menu by removing over 80 additives and clearly defining the changes on its website. Food companies are taking steps to make real food from real ingredients, but we as consumers still have to be vigilant about reading labels. If the ingredient panel resembles a novel rather than a sentence, think twice about purchasing the product.
You have the power to help create change in our food system by using your American dollar to purchase only clean and real food products at your local markets.