What Is An Artificial Ingredient, Anyway?

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Food companies are taking artificial additives out of food to suit consumers’ changing tastes. But “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean “better,” scientists say.

Matt Rourke / AP

This spring, some of America's biggest fast-food chains proudly announced that their menus were going natural, a change that would ripple through tens of thousands of restaurants nationwide.

Panera committed to removing artificial additives and banned more than 150 ingredients from its menu. Taco Bell and Pizza Hut — both owned by Yum Brands — followed with their own plans to nix artificial ingredients. Subway, the country's biggest chain with 27,200 stores, declared that it too would no longer serve foods with artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. Papa John's jumped in to advertise its long-held policy of using “clean” ingredients. And Chipotle, which helped to pioneer the healthy fast-food movement, announced it would switch to a natural tortilla.

Meanwhile, in supermarkets, giant food manufacturers including General Mills, Nestlé, and Kraft all made their own promises about removing artificial ingredients.

It seemed as if the food industry had reached a turning point in the name of wellness, and consumers largely greeted these changes with relief and support. But what many people don't seem to realize is that removing artificial ingredients isn't likely to have any impact on their health.

Olgna / Getty Images

What is missing from the discussion about ingredients is the fact that “natural and artificial flavors really aren't that different,” according to the Environmental Working Group. “The actual chemicals in these two kinds of flavors may be exactly the same: The chemical structures of the individual molecules may be indistinguishable.”

The chemical vanillin, for example, is found in vanilla bean extract and is the primary flavor people associate with vanilla. Vanillin can also be synthetically produced as an artificial flavor. It doesn't have the same range of flavors as natural vanilla extract, which contains other chemicals that make the taste more complex, but it does the job at a lower cost. According to Markus Lipp, a senior director of food standards at United States Pharmacopeial Convention, a nonprofit that publishes quality standards for the food industry, “there is no known and accepted study that would prove” it is less healthy than natural vanilla.

It gets even trickier when it comes to whether finished products, rather than the specific ingredients in them, can be labeled “natural.” According to the FDA, “It is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.”

Consider for example, the very idea of an all-natural hot dog.

“However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances,” Kenneth Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said. “A food is not healthy because it has fewer industrial additives in it. But we're waking up to the fact that industrial additives are put in without rigorous review.”

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