There’s nothing inherently wrong with a food company making a commitment to a clean label, as long as there’s some effort to explain the WHY. WHY is Ingredient X coming out? WHY was it in there in the first place? WHY do people prefer Ingredient X to Ingredient X-prime?
In this post, we continue deconstructing Panera’s No No list. [For Part I, Overall Response, and Part II, Sweeteners, see previous posts]. For each ingredient, you’ll find a brief explanation of its purpose, safety concerns if any, and whether a natural counterpart can perform as well or better.
Part III of V – Colors and Flavor Enhancers
*These ingredient assessments below are part of a collaborative effort, and I thank all who have helped me compile this information. See “FOR MORE INFO” for resources. Contact me on Twitter @GreenEyedGuide for the opportunity to join them in completing and improving this project.
[The official Panera No No List is available here; replicated below.] Ingredients discussed in this post are red.
Artificial Colors (Synthetic and Certified FD&C); Azo Dyes, FD&C Colors (NOTE- multiple separate entries on the list, combined for convenience)
- NAMING CLARIFICATION:FDA classifies colour additives as either “certified” or “exempt from certification.” The former is also referred to as artificial or synthetic; and the latter, by default, is often characterized as “natural.” However, in the United States, federal regulations prevent any colour additive from legally being called natural. FDA also does not consider any colour added to a food product to be natural. [emphasis added, – Read the rest at “Appearance Matters”, excerpt from Food Product Design]
- PURPOSE: Offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions; correct natural variations in color; enhance colors that occur naturally; provide color to colorless and “fun” foods – From Food Insight, Food Ingredients and Colors;
- BENEFIT OVER NATURAL COUNTER-PART: In short, stability. “For example, DDW’s Ondracek notes some anthocyanins — the source of the red, blue and purple colors in plums, purple cabbage, cherries and blueberries — are prone to browning and fading and are affected by the pH of certain formulations. Turmeric, a root used for yellow coloring, is light sensitive, and both beta-carotene and annatto can be prone to oxygen degradation. … In addition, flavor compounds extracted with the color from radishes and red cabbage can impart a strong odor when used in large amounts in a formulation. – From “Should Your Products Go Natural?”
- SAFETY NOTES: The list of color additives the FDA does and does not permit can be found here (FDA); The CSPI puts color additives in the “Avoid” category, and this is a valid opinion, but it is not a sentiment shared other groups in the industry. The International Food Information Council, the Institute of Food Technologists, the FDA, and the European Food Safety Authority take more precautionary positions and indicate there is no conclusive link between color additives and hyperactivity. (Source: Food Insight link above and links in “For More Info”, below)
- FOR MORE INFO: IFIC “Hot Topic: Food Colors”; Food Business News “Naturally Vibrant Colors”; IFT “Coloring Foods and Beverages“
- PURPOSE: To deliver the sensory impression of a food or beverage product; note the official definition for NATURAL FLAVOR, according to the US Code of Federal Regulations:
Natural flavors in the United States are defined in 21 CFR 101.22, as “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.” – From “Natural Flavors Hit the Label”, by Donna Berry, in Food Product Design
- BENEFIT OVER NATURAL COUNTER-PART: In short, artificial flavors usually last longer and cost less, depending on the need for natural resources. In “What is the difference between artificial and natural flavors?”, Dr Gary Reineccius, a professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota, answers the article’s title question in a wonderfully detailed (but not jargon-heavy) article.
- SAFETY NOTES: Safety depends wildly on the amount of the flavor used, for everything is a “toxin” at the wrong dose; specific artificial flavors have brought more concern than others, see “Smoke Flavor, Artificial”, “Diacetyl” and “Vanillin” sections below
- FOR MORE INFO: American Chemical Society on Artificial and Natural Flavors ; “Natural Flavors Hit the Label”, by Donna Berry, in Food Product Design
Astaxanthin and Canthaxanthin (NOTE- two separate entries on the list, combined for convenience)
- PURPOSE: Astaxanthin is a carotenoid pigment in salmon, from beta-carotene in algae the fish eats; Canthaxanthin is the synthetic version of that, sometimes called “nature-identical”. Astaxanthin and its natural counterpart are popular for their antioxidant potential.
- SAFETY NOTES: In fact this rise in popular demand is responsible for the growing concern of economic adulteration (reported here by Nutritional Outlook). The amounts of astaxanthin and canthaxanthin commonly consumed are too low to cause safety concerns.
- FOR MORE INFO: Astaxanthin Fact Sheet, by DSM
Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Disodium Guanylate, Disodium Inosinate, Hydrolyzed Soy or Corn Protein, Monosodium Glutamate/Sodium Glutamate (multiple entries on the list; all sources of Umami)
- PURPOSE: Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) delivers a savory note called “Umami”; Glutamate, the amino acid, has been identified as the source of the umami flavor, and hydrolyzed proteins and autolyzed yeast extract are natural sources of glutamate
- SAFETY NOTES: A very small portion of the population may be sensitive to MSG but the data is very inconsistent. Multiple countries and organizations have weighed in on the safety of MSG (see image below)
Benzyl Alcohol/Benzoyl Peroxide, Calcium Peroxide
- PURPOSE: Used as bleaching agents to help deliver consistent color, commonly used for cheese and flour
- SAFETY NOTES: The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) reviewed the use of BP as a bleaching agent in flour and concluded that treatment at concentrations up to 40 mg/kg was acceptable (WHO, 1964). – From JECFA “Benzoyl Peroxide Chemical and Technical Assessment”; Benzoyl Peroxide and Calcium Peroxide are on Health Canada’s List of Permitted Bleaching, Maturing or Dough Conditioning Agents. China banned the use of benzoyl peroxide and calcium peroxide in 2011, but the Chinese Ministry of Health banned them because they weren’t needed anymore and due to response to public requests for natural food and the intake of fewer chemical materials. From China Daily
- FOR MORE INFO: How and why is flour bleached? by Eating Real Food
Caramel Color (Classes II – IV)
- PURPOSE: All four classes of caramel are produced through heat treatment of sugar. All four classes are considered safe by the FDA but each class has different behaviors and chemical characteristics that make it more or less suitable for certain applications. For example, a different class of caramel is better suited for the tannins in iced tea than the class that works best in certain chocolate milk products.
- SAFETY NOTES: A variety of respected organizations have stood by the safety of caramel color, including the European Food Safety Authority, the FDA, the IFT, the British Soft Drink Association and the American Beverage Association – DDW, “The Truth About Caramel Colour“
- FOR MORE INFO: Food Business News, “Beverage Ingredients in the Spotlight“
- PURPOSE: Leading natural replacement for FD&C Red 40; Natural coloring that provides a characteristic pink, red or purple hue while demonstrating excellent heat and light stability, extracted as carminic acid from the female cochineal insect, a cactus-dwelling insect native to Mexico and South America. – From DDW
- BENEFIT OVER NATURAL-COUNTERPART: Carmine/cochineal is natural in that it is extracted instead of synthesized outright. Carmine/cochineal replacements like lycopene (from tomatoes) or betalains (from beets) may not be as vibrant or as stable over shelf-life. Some procyanidins (from berries) change hue when the acidity level (pH) changes so it may be hard to get a consistent color depending on the food. Donna Berry’s article, “Clean-Label Coloring For Dairy Foods” addresses the pros and cons of carmine, why red-coloring is so difficult, and some of the carmine/cochineal alternatives available.
- SAFETY NOTES: Some people may have an allergic reaction to carmine/cochineal; Vegans, Vegetarians, and others who do not wish to consume products from insects for religious reasons should scan ingredient lists for the words “Cochineal,” “Cochineal Extract,” “Carmine,” “Crimson Lake,” “Natural Red 4,” “C.I. 75470,” or “E120,”
- FOR MORE INFO: “What is carmine and why is Starbucks taking it out of its products?” from Mother Nature Network;
- PURPOSE: Imparts butter aroma; naturally forms in cultured butter from bacteria that produce acid and aroma compounds during fermentation
- SAFETY NOTES: There are some inhalation risks to the people who work in factories where diacetyl/acetoin and related compounds are made, but the same can be said for the workers in factories that make digestive enzymes; OSHA has guidelines on proper handling for these employees, but the average consumer does not face a safety risk
- FOR MORE INFO: IFIC Food Insight “Questions and Answers about Diacetyl”
- PURPOSE: Also known as Potassium Sulfate; Salt substitute in beer and low sodium product; Used in imitation creamers, dry powder beverages, mineral supplements (source of potassium), Can also be used for texture/flow benefits because it works to prevent coagulation and caking
- SAFETY NOTES: The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that the proposed use and use levels of potassium sulphate in food supplements as a source of potassium and sodium is not of safety concern.
- FOR MORE INFO: See Noshly‘s excellent overview of uses, approvals and bans from different countries, and diet considerations
Esters of Fatty Acids
- PURPOSE: Acid-alcohol combinations that provide milk products with their fundamental aromas and fruity notes; From Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, “Many fruits owe their characteristic aroma to chemicals called esters…A single fruit will emit many esters, but one or two account for most of its characteristic aroma.”
- SAFETY NOTES: The EFSA has ruled on the safety of sucrose esters of fatty acids. From the European Oleochemicals and Allied Products Group (APAG) report, “The Safety of Fatty Acid Methyl Esters“:
Fatty Acid Methyl Esters do not deserve classification as carcinogens and the available evidence supports the safety of these materials. Our diligent search has failed to locate any peer-reviewed research or publication which would provide a basis for classifying these materials as tumorigenic. In addition we know of no authoritative body that has so classified these materials.
- FOR MORE INFO: See any of the links above. On Food and Cooking is a great addition to any food-lover’s library!
- PURPOSE: stabilizes the desirable red hue in meats like hot dogs and bacon; also inhibits bacterial toxins like the ones that cause botulism; common preservative in bacon, ham, hot dogs, lunch meats, corned beef, smoked fish, other processed meats
- BENEFIT OVER NATURAL: Natural sources of nitrates, like celery powder, may be used instead; Freezing and refrigerating cured meats also prevents the growth of the botulism toxins, but freezing doesn’t kill the spores that make these toxins, it just inactivates them (like a child in Freeze Tag).
- SAFETY NOTES: People are all over the map on this one, and a straight up-or-down answer of Safe or Not is complicated by the fact that nitrates are found in vegetables and hot dogs (among other places). Can we all agree that a diet rich in veggies is good, and a diet rich in hot dogs is not-so-good? Nitrate is not harmful but it can be converted to nitrite by bacteria in food and in body. Nitrites can form cancer-causing nitrosamines in stomach or in frying food at high temperatures. As such, the CSPI puts them in the “Avoid” category for precaution, and the IFIC emphasizes their necessity to control the much larger threat of Botulism. Eighty to 90 percent of the nitrate most people consume comes from vegetables, but this is unlikely to cause health problems because very little of the nitrate in vegetables is converted to nitrite. From Cornell University, “Nitrate: Health Effects in Drinking Water“
- FOR MORE INFO: This article on Don’t Waste the Crumbs is remarkable with its perspective, honesty, level of information, and humor!
Smoke Flavor (Artificial)
- PURPOSE: Mimics the smokey, charred flavor of food that’s been treated with smoke from burning wood
- SAFETY NOTES: The concern here is with Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are chemicals formed when muscle meat, including beef, pork, fish, or poultry, is cooked using high-temperature methods, such as pan frying or grilling directly over an open flame. Foods directly exposed to actual smoke have more HCAs and PAHs than products with smoke flavor, or liquid smoke.
- FOR MORE INFO: NIH National Cancer Institute article, “Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk” and Fooducate’s article, “Is Smoke Flavoring Safe?”
- PURPOSE: White powder found in nature in mineral sources; Increases the amount of light reflected to give chewing gum and other confectionery products whiter coloration or opacity, From DDW
- BENEFIT OVER NATURAL-COUNTERPART: Note, titanium is natural in that it’s crystallized from mineral ore. Clean-label alternatives include rice starch, but a larger amount must be used – From ConfectioneryNews.com
- SAFETY NOTES: Titanium dioxide has been studied for its potential to harm DNA but the results are inconclusive. The FDA approves titanium dioxide as a color additive but only if it meets certain specifications, i.e it must not be more than 1 percent by weight of the food, it must contain less than 10 parts per million lead, etc
- FOR MORE INFO: This article by Phys.Org covers the uses, pros and cons of titanium dioxide, “Dunkin Donuts ditches titanium dioxide — but is it actually harmful?”
- PURPOSE: Volatile plant compound in Pheonolic family; can be natural or artificial
- BENEFIT OVER NATURAL: In my experience, the most challenging part about finding a Vanilla flavor is that there are almost too many options (Do you want creamy, buttery, light, white-chocolatey…) , But powdered Vanillin, specifically, can be wicked-expensive compared to artificial Vanillin. The article here by Chemical and Engingeering News covers the many routes to naturally derived Vanillin (…now about that Beavers source…make sure you also read the “For More Info” links)
- SAFETY NOTES: See Artificial Flavors, above; and the two links below
- FOR MORE INFO: Now, about the beaver extract “Does Beaver Tush Flavor Your Strawberry Shortcake?” answered by both NPR’s The Salt; and also by Snopes.
Companies should not be criticized for making clean-label commitments like this. However, consumers would benefit much more from moves like this if the companies are more transparent about WHY each ingredient is coming out, and what that ingredient was doing in the food in the first place. If you believe in this type of transparency, this type of consumer awareness, help me share this information.
John Coupland, a professor of food science at Penn State University, talks with Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti about what these additives are, and why more and more companies have been making moves to eliminate them in foods.
Science Meets Food – Renouncing Pronounce-ability
It’s important to ask questions about your food, but that doesn’t mean you should be afraid of it.