When Foods Go ‘Natural’ — Does That Really Make Them Healthier?

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Loopholes in food labelling that will make you think twice about what you put in your grocery cart.

You may have noticed food giant Nestle’s recent announcement that the company is removing artificial colors and flavors from more than 250 chocolate bars across 10 brands and moving to “natural” ingredients instead. Sounds like a healthy switch. But is it?

Nestle’s press release about change makes no claims about the advantages of “natural” ingredients, except that consumers prefer them:

… [S]aid Doreen Ida, president, Nestle USA Confections & Snacks, “We know that candy consumers are interested in broader food trends around fewer artificial ingredients. …”

According to Ida, Nestle USA conducted research on brands like Butterfinger, which indicates that U.S. consumers prefer candy brands they know and love to be free from artificial flavors and colors. Further, findings from Nielsen’s 2014 Global Health & Wellness Survey show more than 60 percent of Americans say no artificial colors or flavors is important to their food purchase decisions.

It may be that consumers will buy more Nestle chocolate bars with the switch to natural ingredients. But when it comes to food packaging, words like “natural” and “artificial” mean less than the average shopper realizes.

All added colors and flavors are processed products.

Take annatto, for example. That’s what Nestle officials say they’ll use as food coloring in Butterfinger instead of the more controversial dyes known as “Red 40” and “Yellow 5.”

Annatto is considered natural coloring because it is derived from the seeds of achiote, or Bixa orellana, a plant indigenous to tropical Latin America. But those seeds bear little resemblance to the annatto coloring Nestle will put in your Butterfinger, because deriving stable food-grade coloring from rainforest seeds requires human intervention.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the process starts with “extraction of the seed with aqueous alkali (usually sodium or potassium hydroxide)” or with “vegetable oil or organic solvents” and might also involve “water suspending,” “steeping,” and “filtering and concentrating the extract into a paste.”

Wouldn’t it be more natural — and safer — to omit all types of coloring from foods? WebMD states annatto is “likely safe for most people when used in food amounts,” but why risk it when Butterfinger tastes just as delicious without added coloring?

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