Skeptics are very familiar with the use of the appeal to nature by pseudoscience peddlers such as the Food Babe and others. Foods with “chemical” ingredients are to be avoided according the these sellers of nonsense, which shows a basic misunderstanding of science. Although their reasons for removing things like artificial colors might be wrong and based in pseudoscience, there are sometimes good scientific reasons for removing added ingredients. And thinking about the pros and cons of unnecessary food additives might serve the skeptical and scientific community well. (Note: The last sentence of this paragraph was reworded significantly to more reflect my intention.)
The example that often comes to mind is the idea of “artificial colors.” According to the International Food Information Council (IFIC), the historical reason for adding these colors to food is to:
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.
This makes sense. Visual cues are an important aspect to eating. Color is one of those things that can affect our perception of taste. And adding color to foods should help cut down on waste because the product looks consistent.
Science shows us artificial colors are safe. There is no evidence artificial colors affect children’s behavior. There is cool behavioral science on what colors of food do to our perception. This post, however, isn’t about showing evidence of these conclusions. It is about the science we don’t know.
In principle, I agree with Kavin Senapathy on voting with our wallets by not supporting foods with the organic label or companies that support pseudoscience regarding food. However, I often find myself drawn to foods that promote things like “no artificial colors or flavors.” It makes me feel bad. I know they are using those terms as a sales tool to pander to the pseudoscience crowd. But I do have a valid scientific question about these colors and flavors, and one that isn’t easy to answer: is there a net benefit to removing these colors from food?
The answer is I don’t know, and I don’t think there is evidence available to answer that question.
My first question is about energy consumption. I can’t find a good number for the concentration of caramel color in a typical soda, but let’s assume there is 100 mg in each can of soda. That would mean that in a year, just Coca-Cola alone would use about 2 million kilograms of coloring per year. To make and transport that much material certainly has an energy cost. All of the products, which use what could be considered an unneeded ingredient, add to our energy usage each year.
My second question is about the psychology of food color. Are we changing the perceived tastes of people by matching flavors and colors that do not occur in fresh foods? Could it make some foods less palatable based on this psychology? This would be a very difficult question to study. While this question isn’t the thing that comes to mind when I purchase snacks for my kids, I do think about it more as a thought experiment, and I find it interesting.
While I am not militant about checking the snacks I feed my kids for artificial colors and flavors, and I have no doubt they are safe to consume, I do find when choosing between two products, I will often choose the one with less overall ingredients and less color added based on what amounts to an emotional idea of saving energy. I have no evidence if this is the case. I even understand a counter-argument could be made that not adding these ingredients could increase waste, thus wasting energy as well. Calculating the energy cost of each is not a simple proposition.
So to my fellow skeptics, if you see me with some organic snack or something with the word “natural” on the label, do not be too hard on me. I didn’t purchase it based on nonsense. I admit I likely bought it either on a scientific premise for which I have no evidence, or perhaps simply because it was on sale and I like the flavor. I promise I still support science!