by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Additives

Mar 4 2015

Goodbye to artificial colors?

I was invited by CNN to comment on the announcement by Nestlé that it is removing artificial colors from its chocolates.

Here’s what I said:

(CNN) When food giant Nestle USA (to which I am, alas, not related) last month announced plans to remove all artificial flavors and colors from its chocolate candies, it understandably made headlines. According to the company, by the end of 2015, none of a group of 250 chocolate products including Butterfinger and Baby Ruth will contain artificial flavors or colors such as Red #40 or Yellow #5.

With the expectation that these chemicals will also disappear from the company’s other candies, it looks like the end of the use of artificial flavors and colors in anything but the cheapest food products. If that proves to be the case, it will be a welcome shift.

Nestle USA intends to advertise the reformulated products with a “No artificial flavors or colors” claim on package labels. If sales of the “no artificial” candies grow as expected, the company will surely extend the removal to all of its other colored and flavored food products. After all, Nestle’s international parent company — and the company’s competitors — will have to take notice and find ways to remove these chemicals from all their product lines.

Nestle USA has undeniable clout. It accounts for a quarter of the $100 billion in annual revenues of the more than century-old, privately held parent corporation, which itself is the largest food company in the world. This move surely will not only reverberate through the candy industry, but also affect every other major food company.

In substituting natural for artificial flavors and colors, Nestle USA is responding to what its customers are saying. The company’s own research indicates that Americans prefer their beloved candy brands to be free of artificial flavors and colors, while other surveys find majorities of respondents saying that artificial chemical additives negatively influence their buying decisions.

Nestle is also responding to decades of complaints from consumer advocates about the potential health risks of these chemicals, especially the dyes. Studies in experimental animals have linked high doses of food dyes to health problems, among them organ damage, cancer, birth defects, and allergic reactions. In humans, studies link food dyes to hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in young children.

The credibility of these studies and their implications for human health remain hotly debated. In the 1970s, for example, Ben Feingold, a physician in California, suggested that food additives caused children to become hyperactive. Much of the evidence for the “Feingold hypothesis” rested on anecdotal reports by parents, whereas double-blind, controlled clinical trials produced contradictory results.

On the basis of current evidence, some artificial food dyes have been banned, while others remain in use despite suggestions that they too might be harmful. But the makers and users of food dyes argue that the chemicals are safe at current levels of usage. As a result of all this, and in the absence of convincing evidence of their safety, the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest has campaigned since the 1970s to remove food dyes and other chemicals from foods, and has continued to petition the Food and Drug Administration to ban them.

The opposing views complicate the regulatory status of food dyes. But after one clinical trial reported that dyes induce hyperactivity in half the children studied, the British government asked companies to stop using most food colors; the European Union requires a warning notice on many foods made with them.

In the United States, the FDA does not permit artificial food dyes to be used unless the manufacturers can meet safety requirements. But the amounts of these substances in the country’s food supply have greatly increased in recent years — soft drinks, breakfast cereals, frozen desserts and even salad dressings all contain artificial coloring agents. True, the FDA considers a dye to be safe if there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result from its intended use. But that standard is vague enough to cause concern.

Given the unresolved scientific questions, it is reasonable to ask why artificial colors have to be in foods at all. From the standpoint of manufacturers, such additives are essential for covering up and hiding unattractive colors in processed foods. To the public, red candy seems to taste better than the drab variety. And while natural colors exist, they are less stable or more expensive to produce. But for Nestle to have taken the action that it has, the company must have found substitutes it can live with. And appealing to consumers’ preference for “natural” makes good business sense.

The truth is that whether artificial colors do or do not cause health problems in adults or children, they are there strictly for cosmetic purposes. For that reason alone, getting rid of them is a good idea.

Feb 19 2015

Nestlé USA says its chocolates won’t have artificial colors or flavors by the end of this year

Nestlé (the giant food company, not me) announces that it is removing all artificial flavors and colors from its chocolate candies this year.

Nestlé USA announced today its commitment to removing artificial flavors and FDA-certified colors, like Red 40 and Yellow 5, from all of its chocolate candy products. By the end of 2015, more than 250 products and 10 brands including NESTLÉ® BUTTERFINGER®, CRUNCH® and BABY RUTH® will be free of artificial flavors and certified colors. Products will begin appearing on store shelves by mid-2015, and will be identified by a “No Artificial Flavors or Colors” claim featured on-pack.

Just to put this in perspective.  According to figures in Advertising Age (June 2014), this company took in revenues exceeding $99 billion in 2013, with a profit of more than $11 billion.  The U.S. accounted for $25 billion of that amount.

If  Nestlé USA does this, the rest of Nestlé is likely to follow.

And “No Artificial Flavors or Colors” ought to encourage other companies to do the same.

Artificial flavors and colors are totally unnecessary in food products.  Think of them as cosmetics.

Whether they do or do not induce behavioral problems in kids—a problem not easily resolved—getting rid of them makes good sense.

Jul 15 2014

Food packaging materials contain a lot of iffy chemicals

Authors employed by the Food Packaging Forum Foundation, funded by the packaging industry but working “independently of donors’ special interests,” have produced a surprising analysis of chemical in food packaging that comes into contact with food during production, handling or storage.

Why surprising?  Because the results are indeed against donors’ special interests.

Such chemicals, the authors say, can contaminate food through migration from the packaging.  About 6000 such substances exist, some of which are associated with disease.  These are Chemicals of Concern (COCs).

This study identified chemicals used in packaging that are considered to be COCs.  It found 175 such chemicals in use.  Of these, 54 are “candidates for Substances of Very High Concern.”

From a consumer perspective, it is certainly unexpected and undesirable to find COCs [chemicals of concern] being intentionally used in FCMs [food contact materials], and thus it seems appropriate to replace substances case by case with inherently safer alternatives.

This comes from people in the industry.  I hope makers of packing materials—and food safety regulators—pay close attention.

Aug 7 2013

You think the FDA gets to approve all food additives as safe? Not a chance.

I was invited to write the editorial to accompany a study published today in JAMA Internal Medicine looking at the highly conflicted process used to decide whether food additives are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).

Here’s the study.

Here’s my editorial.

I know this sounds completely crazy, but here’s what the study found:

  • Manufacturers get to decide whether food additives are safe or not.
  • Manufacturers get to decide whether to bother to tell the FDA the additives are in the food supply.

And if they do volunteer to inform the FDA (and many do),

  • Manufacturers get to decide who sits on the panels that review the evidence for safety.

In reading the study, it seemed to me that:

  • As long as not too many people roll over dead after eating foods with new additives, nobody will ever have a clue whether the additive is safe.
  • The regulatory gap has spawned an entire enterprise of GRAS consultants and GRAS consulting firms who are in the business—presumably lucrative—of providing the scientific documentation the FDA needs to determine additive safety.

Some of the consultants need to do a better job.  The FDA raises enough questions that about 15% (my estimate) of the requests would be denied.

The good news: If the FDA sees the safety documentation, it does its job.

But what happens to the rejected additives?  Or the ones that don’t get voluntarily sent to FDA?

Nobody really knows (think: caffeine in alcohol drinks–the FDA had no idea).

We need a better food safety system in this country and conflicts of interests in GRAS additive approvals are a good place to start.

Here’s what USA Today has to say about this (I’m quoted).

 

 

Mar 31 2011

What’s up with food dyes and hyperactivity?

 I’ve been waiting to see what the FDA panel did before commenting on this week’s hearings on food dyes and hyperactivity in young children. 

According to reports from CNN and from the New York Times, the panel decided—to do nothing. 

Research, says the FDA panel, is insufficient to conclude that food dyes cause hyperactivity.  Despite much concern about this issue in Great Britain, the FDA will not put a warning label on foods that contain the dyes. 

This is déjà vu all over again.  When I first became interested in nutrition in the mid-1970s, food dyes were a big issue.   

Hyperactivity in kids was a new thing.  Ben Feingold, a physician in California, said that a diet devoid of food colors would help calm kids down. 

The Feingold Association still encourages that diet.

But scientfic tests of the Feingold hypothesis produced mixed effects.  In 1980, Science magazine published two reports of such tests. 

The first”by James M. Swanson and Marcel Kinsbourne (Science 1980;207:1485-87) gave pills containing a mix of food additives to 40 children, 20 diagnosed as hyperactive and 20 not.  The children diagnosed with hyperactivity reacted to the food additive challenge but the other children did not.

This study, however, was criticized for using pills, mixing additives, and evaluating the kids’ behavior by methods that were controversial.

A second study (Weiss, et al. Science 1980;207:1487-89) made a valiant effort to correct for those problems.  It created two drinks that looked and tasted the same, one with a blend of seven food colors and one without.    The study was carefully designed to be triple-blind.  The drinks were formulated to look the same and neither the kids, parents, or observers knew what the kids were drinking.  The drinks were tested at different times on 22 kids.

The result?  Twenty of the 22 kids showed no reaction to the dyes.  One showed occasional reactions. 

But one child reacted to the dyes every time.

The interpretation?  A small percentage of kids may react to food dyes.

That was pretty much the end of that except for petitions by Center for Science in the Public Interest to get rid of food dyes.

There things rested until 2007 when a study in England revived the issue.

Food dyes have only one purpose: to sell junk foods.  Candy, Cheetos, and sodas that are brightly colored are perceived as tasting better than the grey alternatives.  The food industry needs food dyes badly.

But nobody else does.  Parents of hyperactive kids can easily do their own experiment and see if removing food colors helps calm their kids down. 

Food dyes have no health benefits that I can think of.  Kids don’t need to be eating those foods anyway.  Kids will not be harmed by avoiding food dyes.

It would be nice to have more conclusive research.  In the meantime, read food labels!

Sep 11 2008

Mars UK commits to reformulation

The Brits are much more worried about artificial colors and flavors than we seem to be, these days as a result of the Southampton study, which linked such additives to cognitive and behavioral deficits in children eating a lot of candy.  Mars has now made a commitment to eventually get rid of artificial colors in its candy bars.  Will they do the same thing here?  If so, what will we do without blue M&M’s?

Apr 11 2008

UK’s Food Agency takes on color additives

Remember the Southampton study of food colors and hyperactivity that I commented on some months ago? On the basis of that study, the British Food Standards Agency is asking food companies to voluntarily get rid of color additives in food products aimed at young children. Since those products are junk foods anyway, and everyone – especially anti-additive advocacy groups – wishes kids would eat less of them, the study gives the agency some ammunition. The point of color additives, after all, is to make junk foods look like they taste good. Kids don’t need junk foods or color additives, but I wish I felt more confident about the science.

Mar 12 2008

What’s the story on MSG?

Last week, Allison wrote: “I recently read the NYTimes article about MSG [monosodium glutamate] and although you were quoted, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts.”

This is a tough one. My files on MSG go back to 1971 when the FDA said this flavor enhancer, the sodium salt of an amino acid that forms part of virtually all proteins, was safe for everyone “except for those who are individually sensitive to the substance.” By these, it meant people who reacted to foods containing MSG with headaches, tingling, flushing or other such neurological symptoms. Because Chinese food contained a lot of MSG, the symptoms came to be known as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” In the late 1970s, scientists weighed in with reports of placebo-controlled trials that showed no reaction to MSG except for the first half hour after eating it. By 1980, scientists concluded that MSG only caused problems for a small percentage of individuals who had a genetic susceptibility. Placebo-controlled trials continue to find no difference in symptoms when people consume MSG or a placebo. That is why I told the reporter that there was no clinical evidence for problems and why “I thought the issue was settled though I know a lot of people will never believe that.” I wish what I had said next had been included because I went on to explain that such studies cannot account for the very real experience of people who experience symptoms, such as those whose letters appear in today’s Times.

How to make sense of this? MSG susceptibility falls into the category of many other food sensitivities and allergies, most of which are exceedingly difficult to diagnose. The science of food sensitivities, like much of nutrition science, is difficult to do, especially when serious symptoms are relatively rare in the population (it is too expensive to do studies on a large enough sample of individuals to get meaningful results).

If you are one of those people who experiences symptoms from MSG, there is only one thing to do: avoid it. And that brings us to the need to have more informative food labels. One again, we are in the realm of food politics.

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