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When Consumers Trump Science: Food Dyes Become The Front Line For ‘All Natural’

Consumers’ appetite for seeing “natural” on food labels is clearly here to stay — even if "natural" doesn't necessarily mean "safer."

Last week, Nestle announced it’d be ditching artificial additives from its line of products including Smarties, KitKats and Crunch bars by the end of 2015.

For anyone hoping to see artificial additives like food dyes banished from Americans’ diet, the move was met with applause.

But of course, this doesn’t mean that Butterfingers won’t still have that bright orange shine currently courtesy of a man-made mix of Red 40 and Yellow 5. Instead, the company will switch to non-synthetic dyes such as annatto, or hues from naturally derived sources including carrot, hibiscus, radish, safflower and lemon.

These won’t be the only chocolate bars in the candy aisle getting a makeover though: Hershey’s also reported that it was beginning its move to “simple, easy-to-understand” ingredients.

Both companies have pointed to consumer habits as their reason for reworking their current recipes — and it’s not completely without justification.

Potential Health Risks
There’s certainly an “ick” factor to artificial additives — especially those derived from petroleum — even though they enhance flavor and color, helping us “taste the rainbow” in our favorite sweets.

Controversy has also swirled around the potential health risks of synthetic dyes since studies began linking them to ADHD and other behavioral problems in the 1970s.

But the scientific evidence for this connection is murky. After reviewing hundreds of research studies — including a UK study in 2007 that is often cited as the final word in the debate — the FDA concluded that there is no substantiated link between “color additives that were tested and behavioral effects.”

It’s also not clear that all of the naturally derived additives are necessarily healthier.

Take annatto, for example, which is derived from the seeds of achiote trees in South America. These bright red seeds are used in food and textiles to produce red and orange hues. But you don't have to look far online to find people complaining that annatto has given them a host of health issues, including irritable bowel syndrome.  

You will, however, be hard pressed to find any pool of vigorous academic research about ingredients like annatto and other organic additives explaining how they affect health, and the FDA is not known for giving the same level of scrutiny to naturally derived additives as it does to synthetic chemicals.

Not to mention — duh — all of this candy will still contain loads of sugar.

Nevertheless, consumers’ appetite for seeing “natural” on food labels is clearly here to stay. According to one research report, the market for natural food color additives is expected to grow at a rate of 2.8 times more than synthetic food colors between 2014 and 2020.

And when it comes to meeting consumers’ demands, evidence of safety isn't likely to be enough meet changing tastes.

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