Is There a Scientific Reason to Make Foods More “Natural?”


Oooo! Scary Chemicals! Via Pixabay Creative Commons License.

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.

Candy Colors via Wikimedia Commons.

Candy colors. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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!

About Eric Hall

My day job is teaching physics at the University of Minnesota, Rochester. I write about physics, other sciences, politics, education, and whatever else interests or concerns me. I am always working to be rational and reasonable, and I am always willing to improve my knowledge and change my mind when presented with new evidence.
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36 Responses to Is There a Scientific Reason to Make Foods More “Natural?”

  1. George Kanakaris says:

    What about common sense ?Not ‘scientific’ enough ?

    • Frederick says:

      Of course common sense is not scientific enough. Common sense tells us the Earth is flat and that the Sun revolves around the Earth. If we stuck with common sense, we’d never have made it out of the medieval era.

  2. Karolyn says:

    I wish you hadn’t put the blue font color over the candy picture. I can’t read it.

  3. Karolyn says:

    All I have to say is that I disagree. When I was diagnosed with HepC in 2001, I decided not to opt for conventional treatment and instead chose to use alternative methods and clean up my diet, meaning no artificials. I decided to not put my liver through all the extra work. Although I am not as pure as I was initially, after 12 years, I’m healthier than I was then. I go to the doctor once a year for labs to keep an eye on my liver health. I have been on no medications; and, in fact, am probably the only 68 year old at the office without a bag full of medication. I don’t get sick and can only attribute that to my pretty healthy diet, not drinking the diet soda I drank for years and my mindset. (the mind-body connection dont’cha know) When I was a kid, before so many of the additives, antiobios, etc. were found in our food, I knew no kids with allergies, asthma or autism. We got chicken pox, measles, whatever and survived quite well, with immunity. Of course, I could certainly go on; however, you get my drift.

    • Dale says:

      Personal anecdotes are fine, but not knowing things about sick or different neighbors is probably where some of your prejudice is founded. 60+ years ago, people were MUCH less likely to talk about, or make publicly visible forays with, children with such conditions. Also, your memories of surviving the diseases quite well is great for your personal history, but does not account for the verifiable thousands (millions world-wide) that actually suffered greatly and/or died.

      • Karolyn says:

        I just don’t understand how people don’t mind all the stuff in their food. Coke & Pepsi? You can clean toilets with it. Why would anybody want it in his body? And the cheapest food, like Banquet frozen meals, has the most junk in it; and the poor are most likely to ingest it. Did you know that the “ice cream” in WalMart’s Great Value ice cream sandwiches doesn’t really melt; it just gets soft? Yuck! Kraft “cheese” singles isn’t even really cheese. I believe it’s labeled as “cheese food” or something like that.

        • Eric Hall says:

          Give us an example of some things you might eat during the day. I would be willing to bet there are many chemicals in your food as well that can be used to clean household fixtures.

          • Karolyn says:

            I’ve pretty much changed my diet to very little neat – maybe once a week. Frozen natural foods from Trader Joe’s, vegetables, fruits, natural cereal, green drinks, organic eggs unless I get them locally, fruit smoothies with organic yogurt, salad, organic canned soup….My weakness is chocolate, but it’s high cacao, and good quality ice cream. In cool weather I do my own baking. I do admit I’m not perfect and sometimes something with a few additives will slip in, but that isn’t the norm.

        • Eric Hall says:

          Just because the ice cream doesn’t “melt” doesn’t automatically make it scary or dangerous. There is a good reason you wouldn’t want the ice cream to melt for storage and transportation. And it will melt, just not at room temperature. There are plenty of “natural” things that do this as well, such as jelly and gelatin or even gravy. Go ahead and make some all “natural” gravy. Now put it in the fridge. Take it back out and leave it on the counter. It will largely stay in its gelatinous state.

          Check out this post from the SGU for more info on it.

          • Karolyn says:

            If I leave my good quality ice cream, made with real cream and other ingredients, out, it will melt.

        • Frederick says:

          Kraft singles cannot be labeled as simply “cheese” because they are not aged long enough to be considered cheese, and are not processed the same way as traditional cheeses. They are still made with the same ingredients as cheese, but processed in a different way to provide a different consistency and to save money. Kraft singles do not list any “unnatural” ingredients on their label, so unless they’re illegally excluding ingredients from their label, Kraft singles are as safe as any “real” cheese.

        • Ross says:

          Fruit juice and ‘organic’ yoghurt would also do a fine job of cleaning your toilet, if you were that way inclined. The fact that commercial toilet cleaners tend to be poisonous does not indicate that anything that can clean a toilet is also poisonous!

        • June says:

          I know. Why would anyone WANT to eat such crap.
          It is obvious this isn’t good for anyone. I also notice the only dogs that get “people diseases” were fed the same crap.

    • Marian Whitcomb says:

      What office hires a lot of people in their 60s? Inquiring minds want to know!

      • Karolyn says:

        I meant at the doctor’s office. I’m retired.

        • Thomas says:

          So when you go to the Doctor, people over 60 you meet there take medication ? What a shock.

          • June says:

            Wow. It’s actually NOT NATURAL to walk around with a bag of pills.

            Monkeys don’t do it. Lions and tigers don’t do it. Hell, most animals (in nature) don’t even show signs of “old age”.

          • Eric Hall says:

            I am a deer hunter, and I have seen very few old deer. Average life for a deer is about 3 years in the wild, but they can live to 20 in captivity. So yeah, in nature, they die before old age.

            But the few I have seen in nature – they do move alot slower – and they get a really awesome color that definitely shows their age.

          • Karolyn says:

            I did say I’m 68 and take no medications. It is not natural to be on so many pharmaceuticals. Given the proper nutrients, the body can heal itself. However, properly taken care of, the body won’t get sick.

          • Eric Hall says:

            Heal itself from what? Many of the conditions people take medications for are genetic. Cholesterol is a perfect example. Recent studies indicate that diet does very little to change the level of cholesterol in the body. Maintaining a proper weight, which is indirectly related to food, can also help reduce the need for some medications. Anecdotal example – Penn Gillette lost a bunch of weight by eating a vegetarian-type diet (he is writing a book on it now). He lost the weight and has stated he went from 8 medications to zero in just under a year. Again, this is just an anecdote, but parallels nicely with research that says weight is a big factor in our overall health.

            So it isn’t necessarily the food healing us, but simply the lack of excess food that could do much of the healing.

    • Regan says:

      The point is, the course of your disease could have been exactly the same, even if you had not made any changes. That’s why anecdotes don’t count.

  4. sagerad says:

    Well, we sometimes do find out that a food additive that was thought to be safe actually has an effect on the human organism. This NPR story on the concern about food dyes illustrates that we are not sure about effects that additives may have. So, scientifically, if your food sampling method (i.e. your diet) selects for more of these additives, then you have a greater chance of exposure to a chemical that will later be found to have an effect on health. Ancient foods are time-tested. Newer food additives are not (well, 20 to 30 years for some of them).

    Secondly, without the use of food additives, it takes good quality food to make an appealing product. With flavor enhancers and dyes, poorer quality inputs can be made palatable, even if this is based on chemical airbrushes to add zing to the flavor and color.

    • Eric Hall says:

      The problem with that data is it isn’t well controlled. The dietary changes used to conduct the studies were pretty extreme, so much so the author of the meta-study admitted it was just as likely to be an effect due to an overall healthier diet and not necessarily the dye itself. In other words, the dye indicated lower quality nutrition, but the dye itself wasn’t the cause.

      And the argument from antiquity holds very little weight. Ancient food? If that food was so good, why did people live half as long as now?

      Processed food, in general, is bad in that it tends to be calorie dense and not as nutrient dense. We can make better processed food with science…and we are.

  5. Marian Whitcomb says:

    Even producing “natural” products you grow and harvest in your back yard can be harmful if someone scraped lead paint off the walls and left it in the soil. I guess we stopped being afraid of nukes and Russians somewhere and something needs to fill the hole!

  6. Buying something organic or woo-ish because you happen to like how it tastes is totally valid. We buy organic milk, not because of any hokum on the label, but because we believe it tastes better and lasts longer. I also happen to think some organic produce tastes better than some conventional produce, but I realize that’s my own bias. I don’t buy anything because it’s “organic” or “natural,” and I give my kid conventional bananas and blueberries. If there’s a difference between an organic banana and a conventional one, I haven’t found it – except the organic ones cost ten cents a pop more. My son certainly can’t tell and doesn’t care.

    • June says:

      Some of it does taste better. I believe eating a whole foods diet is more important than whether or not something is organic. So I eat more plants than anything else. Whenever I can, I try organic varieties.

  7. Mike says:

    Of course eating organic means you don’t love your planet or the hapless animals that are destroyed by organic farming. Because it produces less per acre (up to 25% less, more wild land has to be plowed under to make room for organics. How many deer were killed so you could have an organic label on your apple?

  8. kyle says:

    Eric Hall I think you constant bias twards science makes you a poor scientist!

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