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.
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."
Marketers don't explicitly claim that removing these ingredients would make their food healthier. Instead they use words like "clean," "better," "simpler," and "quality." In Panera's ad, for example, a woman with a child suggests: "If the ingredients in your food are unpronounceable, we believe they shouldn't be in your food."
But marketers don't need to be explicit. Consumers have already jumped to their own conclusions.
"There's no science to say the preservatives, or artificial colors, or ingredients, that there's anything wrong with them. I believe in the science," Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol told BuzzFeed News.
Then why are companies making these very costly reformulations? Papa John's, for one, claims its clean ingredients add $100 million to food costs each year. Companies say it improves taste, but that's not the only motivation. "It makes them feel better," Niccol said.
The same is true at General Mills, which is removing removing artificial flavors and colors from its cereals.
"This change to our cereals is not about safety or health concerns," Lauren Pradhan, wellness marketing manager for General Mills' cereal division, told BuzzFeed News by email. "We are making the changes because we listen to our consumers and these ingredients are not what people are looking for in their cereal today."
Companies are making a rational business decision: giving their customers what they want in hopes of creating more satisfied, loyal patrons. Yet customers are not always the most rational beings, especially when it comes to food science.
Here are the negative words most frequently associated with artificial ingredients, based on mentions on social media and blogs, according to Infegy, a social media monitoring and analysis company:
Few scientists would defend junk food, empty calories, or the needless use of chemicals. There's plenty of that in our food system, and overconsumption of cheap, easy-to-access, but nutritionally deficient foods has led to many well-documented problems. The recent boost in transparency can be beneficial. But it's worth remembering that what makes a food junk is not chemicals, and what makes a food healthy is not their absence.
What exactly is a "natural" ingredient? According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "natural ingredients are derived from natural sources" such as a spice, fruit, fruit juice, vegetable, vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, or dairy product.
Additives, like every other chemical substance, including water, can be harmful in the wrong amounts, and the FDA reviews usage and safety information for additives it approves.
Yet concerns have emerged as companies introduce more additives to the market, making their own safety determinations and bypassing review and approval by the under-resourced FDA. "The FDA is concerned that some companies may be making independent [safety] determinations that do not meet the criteria," the agency said in an emailed statement to BuzzFeed News. The FDA has been criticized for permitting ingredients that are banned from use in Europe.
"We aren't saying we have a public health crisis," Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for food, told the Washington Post last year. "But we do have questions about whether we can do what people expect of us."
This lapse in oversight rightly has many consumers concerned, and the changes food companies are making now are not meaningless.
It's hard to dispute the removal of additives that are completely unnecessary, such as colors. Consider a chemical like titanium dioxide, a white pigment used in things like sunscreen, paint, toothpaste, and — oddly — powdered doughnuts. The need for glaringly white doughnuts is pretty low, other than their remarkable beauty. Still, many other additives, like preservatives, serve important functions in keeping food edible.
By now "chemophobia" has spread wide and far, even though few consumers can articulate specific fears about most of the ingredients that are being stripped from menus. In some cases, additives' beneficial effects, such as extending shelf life, have been overshadowed by their unfamiliar chemical names.
It's the same logic applied years ago in a hoax to ban "dihydrogen monoxide," the name the pranksters attached to water (H2O).
To Mary Ellen Camire, a food science professor at the University of Maine and the president of the Institute of Food Technologists, a nonprofit scientific organization, the fixation on paring down ingredients is "elitist."
"Certainly for people who are starving, [preservatives] would be nice to have," Camire told BuzzFeed News. Many people assume that "if it's a big company producing the food, it's bad. If it's a chemical, it's bad," she added, but none of that is based on science.
For instance, cysteine — an amino acid — is used as a dough strengthener and as a flavor, and can also prevent oxygen from destroying vitamin C, yet has been banned from menus, according to Lisa Lefferts, senior scientist at the health advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest. Another chemical being removed from menus, calcium propionate, is used to prevent mold in breads and pastries, she said, "and it adds a little calcium, which is good." Again, it's all about the amount used.
Panera and like-minded advocacy groups have cited stricter ingredient guidelines in Europe among factors that pushed them to re-evaluate ingredients lists in the U.S. But is stricter necessarily better?
The Food and Drug Administration's core responsibility is "protecting the public health." Of course, the agency is not infallible — its recent move to reduce artificial trans fat, for instance, came roughly 25 years after studies concluded that it was harmful — and it is continually under industry pressure. But neither is the FDA incompetent.
Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told BuzzFeed News that Europe takes a more precautionary approach, but "where you draw the line, inevitably there will be some arbitrariness." Since it's impossible to collect "perfect evidence" by randomizing subjects at birth and tracking them for the rest of their lives, he added, "you can't have absolute certainty that there is or isn't harm" in consuming these additives.
It's precisely this ambiguity that Panera wants to eliminate now with its No No List of more than 150 banned ingredients, which includes vanillin and added caffeine.
"That 'No-No List' offers people a comprehensive line in the sand," said Panera CEO Ron Shaich. "If you get stuck in this debate — is it good for me, not good for me — for every item on there, we're going to have an unending game of musical chairs."
Ultimately, Willett said, whether or not these chemicals are in our diets probably makes very little difference. "The biggest problems are the simple things: that we're eating way too much refined starch instead of whole grains, too much red meat instead of a better mix of protein sources that includes more vegetable sources of protein, and that we're not eating enough fruits and vegetables."
Some of the public's common sense about nutrition does make sense. Roughly 61% of Americans' calories came from highly processed foods, one study showed, and the benefit of eating less processed food is the reduced chance that it will contain added sugar, salt, or calories. Avoiding foods that are nutritionally void but made tasty with artificial flavors and colors may steer consumers toward alternatives that are more nutritious. The changes food companies are making can have positive effects, but these are the kinds of considerations that can really improve a diet more so than agonizing over artificial additives. And this will be the longer battle.