Artificial flavours and colours are becoming less acceptable to American consumers. Nearly one quarter of U.S. shoppers reported checking food labels in 2013 in order to avoid buying products containing artificial additives -- a 15 percent increase from 2012. Global sales of natural food colourings also surpassed those of synthetic colours for the first time in 2011, which shows that people are paying closer attention to what’s in their food. As a result, there is greater pressure on the food industry to come up with natural alternatives.
For a long time, there has been a divide between the United States and Europe on what additives should be allowed in food. Several months ago, I wrote a post called “American kids get artificial food dyes, British kids get all-natural dyes,” about big, mainstream food companies that make the same products differently, depending on where they will be sold. This was because, until recently, the U.S. market hasn't demanded the same natural standards as the European market does.
An article called “The New Naturals,” posted by the Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), explains the EU’s precise standards for what constitutes a ‘natural’ food additive. First, the flavour must already exist in nature, such as vanilla, and not be created. Second, its raw material must be natural, not a synthetic chemical. Third, obtaining the natural flavour must be a natural process, such as fermentation or nonchemical extraction.
American consumers finally seem to be coming around, which is wonderful. “Food colourings is one of the areas where the trend for natural varieties at the expense of artificial and synthetic ones is most pronounced,” Jonathan Thomas, principal market analyst at Leatherhead Food Research, told C&EN. Even Mars, the maker of M&Ms, has just received FDA approval to start using spirulina extract from cyanobacteria to colour its blue candies, after nearly two decades of synthetic blue dye.
While the transition to natural additives is a positive one, there’s a bigger issue at hand than the question of whether or not additives are healthy. The real problem lies with the processed foods that contain these flavours and colours, most of which should be left on the supermarket shelf, not brought home to eat. Children’s snacks, in particular, are loaded with seemingly kid-friendly colours and flavours, and yet those are terribly unhealthy products for kids to eat, natural additives notwithstanding. The best solution is to eat a rainbow of fresh produce that occurs entirely in nature, in the skins and peels of real food, rather than concerning oneself with anything processed.