Food

Wondering What Makes Your PSL Taste so Good?

The ultimate crash course on artificial colors, sugars and flavorings

Whether you're team Pumpkin Spice Latte or prefer flavors other than Fall packed in a coffee cup, you've probably wondered what makes that addicting-ly good taste or Instagram-worthy rainbow of colors. Artificial colors, sugars and flavorings are in a lot of the food and drink products that we consume every day, and sometimes, it's really confusing to figure out the difference between "natural" flavors and artificial flavors and which ones are safer. We're here to help you out!


What do artificial and natural actually mean?

Here's the breakdown – artificial means any substance that is synthesized from other chemicals, instead of from existing plants, animals or fruit while natural means any substance that is made from chemicals derived from plants, animals, or fruit (1). Food scientists can create artificial colors, sugars and flavorings by modifying natural ones or creating new chemicals (1).

The Food and Drug Administration considers the term "natural" to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in, or has been added to food (2). Natural, though, is sometimes a mystery. Most food manufacturers do not have to disclose what makes up their "natural" ingredients as long as the ingredients fall under the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) category (a.k.a. FDA's category for ingredients that have either been grandfathered in, or haven't been shown to have terrible long-term health effects) (12). This makes it difficult to say that something made with "natural" ingredients is safer or healthier, because sometimes, we don't actually know (12)!

Here's the inside scoop on sugars, flavors and colorings

If you look closely into the research, there is a giant divide between individuals who consider artificial colors, flavorings and sugars to be perfectly safe and others who won't even go near them. Here's the truth (a.k.a. what current scientific research has indicated). In some instances, artificially derived compounds are safer because they don't contain small amounts of potential toxins to humans that are present in compounds derived from plants or fruit. However, in the majority of all cases, "natural" flavors, colorings and sugars are overall, safer. Let's dive deeper into why that is.

You probably know from your childhood (and maybe still adulthood!) candy cravings that there are numerous artificial colors out there that help make food look mouthwatering. However, many of these artificial colors have also been linked with negative health consequences. For instance, three dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 have been found to be contaminated with cancer causing chemicals. These three dyes, in addition to Blue 1 also cause hypersensitivity reactions, where your immune system overreacts when you come into contact with Blue 1 or those specific red or yellow colorings. Yellow 5 just seems to be the ultimate bad guy; in addition to the above health effects, studies have even shown that it can mess up your DNA (3)!

In terms of artificial flavors, the world is huge. Scientists have managed to create an astounding number of flavors - some that mimic those from nature and some that don't (can you say blue raspberry). Most of the artificial flavoring agents are obtained from petroleum (yes, petroleum, like what goes into a car!) (4). A couple popular ones are the butter and vanilla flavor. Diacetyl (butter flavor) is added in popcorn, margarine, and butter-flavored cooking oils and sprays. Low-level consumption of diacetyl is considered safe, but long-term exposure causes obstructive lung diseases (5). Luckily, there's a quick-fix to decrease your exposure to diacetyl when it comes to microwaveable butter flavored popcorn. Just let the bag of popcorn cool for a couple minutes after heating to let the steam dissipate before you open the bag (11). This will ensure you aren't inhaling as much as the diacetyl and keep you from burning your tongue! You can also learn to make your own stovetop or microwave popcorn super quickly. Real vanilla extract is composed of more than 250 flavors, the main component being vanillin. Artificial vanilla contains only the vanillin component and can cause allergic reactions and decrease liver function (6). Want to make sure you're only getting the good stuff? Here's our pro-tip! If you're looking at a vanilla extract with only vanillin as the ingredient at the store, just stick it back on the shelf. Real vanilla extract will have alcohol and vanilla beans as the ingredients.

One last quick note about high-intensity sweeteners (a.k.a. sugar substitutes). Aspartame, sucralose and saccharin are the most popular sugar substitutes used to enhance flavors. You may know them as Splenda, Equal or Sweet n' Low. Behavioral changes, hyperactivity, allergies, and carcinogenicity are the unwanted health effects of these sweeteners (6, 7). If you are looking for a sugar substitute, try out Stevia (brand names include SweetLeaf, Truvia, and Pure Via). It is a plant-based sugar substitute, and studies have shown that stevia is a safer alternative and in some instances, may even carry health benefits (8,9)!

Why everything in moderation holds true

A good majority of studies on artificial colors, flavorings and sugars have shown that they are generally safe for humans, the problem occurs when you consume these excessively.

Depending on the type of artificial sugar used, you can easily get away with drinking two sodas a day (10). In small doses, our body is extremely well-equipped to process and get rid of toxic compounds (you can thank your liver for that!) (1). One thing to note is that even though more products are now using more and more "natural" compounds, artificially derived compounds are cheaper, more stable and have a longer-shelf life, meaning we probably won't be getting rid of them in everything any time soon. What you can do is try and buy fewer processed foods, and stick to meat, vegetables, fruits and unflavored dairy products. A good way to flavor food naturally is through spice mixes like herbs de provence, harissa and jerk seasoning. Also worth a note, organic products can't contain any artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives.

Bottom line: Consuming foods or drinks that contain artificial sugars, flavorings and colors is not the end of the world. In moderation, you can be sure that they won't cause significant negative health effects. This is just good information for you to know so you can make informed choices on what things you want to eat or drink that have these artificial compounds, and which ones aren't worth the toxic stress (or the calories)! So you know what, if that PSL is what gets you through your week, go for it!

References

  1. https://www.acsh.org/sites/default/files/Natural-and-Artificial-Flavors-What-s-the-Difference.pdf
  2. https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm456090.htm
  3. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/1077352512Z.00000000034
  4. https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/science/article/pii/B9780128115183000016?via%3Dihub#bib0040
  5. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/1077352512Z.
  6. https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/science/article/pii/B9780128115183000016?via%3Dihub#bib0040
  7. https://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm397716.htm
  8. https://www.ingentaconnect.com/contentone/ben/cpd/2017/00000023/00000011/art00006
  9. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/fc15/178ca15502d3c0d64e7753eccb88e7bd73db.pdf
  10. https://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm397725.htm#Saccharin
  11. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/10/will-microwave-popcorn-ruin-my-lungs/544173/
https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/what-does-natural-flavors-really-mean/2017/07/24/eccdc47e-67f7-11e7-a1d7-9a32c91c6f40_story.html?utm_term=.ea69cc005b80
Life

Tips for Traveling With Less Plastic

You don't have to sacrifice convenience for sustainability!

Traveling for the holidays can be super stressful… the early flights, long lines, and last-minute delays seem inevitable. Traveling can also be a hidden stressor on the environment; it's been identified as a significant generator of plastic waste. The convenience of single-use plastic can be tempting, especially with the stress of holiday travel, but even one plastic item can add to the pollution problem. And this problem only seems to be getting worse, since only 10% of plastic is recycled, and around 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans per year (1, 2). Luckily, it's really easy to limit your plastic consumption while you travel! Here are our tips for traveling with less plastic:

  1. Bring a reusable water bottle - Traveling can be exhausting and it's definitely important to stay hydrated, and reusable water bottles are an easy way to cut down on plastic use. Americans purchase roughly 50 billion plastic single-use water bottles per year and only about 20% get recycled (3). Plus, who wants to pay outrageous airport prices for something that can be free!
  1. Bring your own shampoo - As cute as the tiny shampoos provided by hotels are, these containers require lots of plastic for little shampoo so it's better for the Earth if you pass them up. Instead, pack your own shampoo! There are great shampoo options with plastic-free packaging. Check out our plastic-free shampoo roundup for inspiration!
  1. Avoid buying travel-sized toiletries - Once again, although cute, small toothpaste containers, mouthwash bottles, or any other item you can buy in travel size uses way more plastic than necessary and is usually tossed after just a few uses. Bring the larger containers when you can or fill reusable containers with your toiletries from home.
  1. Say no to plastic bags - Whether this be shopping bags or ziplocs, there are always better alternatives! Your reusable grocery bag can make an excellent souvenir holder and small stainless steel containers are perfect for packing snacks and toiletries!
  1. Bring your own utensils! - Most plastic straws and cutlery cannot be recycled. Packing a washable utensil set takes up barely any space, and can reduce plastic consumption significantly! Half a million straws are used and thrown away in the world every day (3).

You might be stuck in that airport security line for hours, but you can feel good knowing you're still doing your part to reduce plastic consumption! One day of convenience doesn't have to add up to a mountain of plastic waste.

Citations:

  1. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/habitats/plastic-pollution/#close
  2. https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution
  3. https://www.earthday.org/2018/03/29/fact-sheet-single-use-plastics/
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Life

Flame Retardants in TVs Need a Commercial Break

Watching your favorite shows doesn't have to involve harmful chemicals

Beth Kemler is the Mobilization Director for Safer Chemicals Healthy Families

The holiday season always feels like a great time to buy a TV- think of the Black Friday sales! Plus, watching holiday movies is always better in HD. But did you know that the plastic casings of many TVs on the market contain hazardous chemicals called organohalogen flame retardants. Of course, you don't want your TV to catch fire during a binge-watching session, but there are better ways to protect ourselves rather than flame retardants.

What's the problem with flame retardants?

While they may seem like a good idea, flame retardants actually do more harm than good. These chemicals have been linked to cancer, neurological disorders, impaired fertility, and developmental problems. They also don't stay in your TV (or other products where they're found)—they leach into the air and stick to household dust. Children and adults alike breathe them in, eat them when they touch surfaces coated with them and then handle food and even absorb them through their skin.

Studies have found them in the bodies of adults, children, and fetuses in the womb. They've even been found in breast milk and scientists suspect that the rise in flame retardants in our homes is linked to a rise in thyroid disease they've seen in indoor cats.

And when products containing flame retardant chemicals burn, the chemicals can make the smoke even more hazardous for firefighters. They can also be especially dangerous to workers and children who recycle the plastics from TVs and other electronics in facilities around the world. And these chemicals make it much harder to recycle the plastic—adding to our global plastic waste crisis. There's basically nothing good about flame retardants.



Toxic TV Binge: hazardous flame retardant chemicals uncovered in Best Buy, Amazon TVs

Despite the hazards, it's almost impossible to find a TV in the US that doesn't contain flame retardants. A recent investigation by Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, where I work, and our partner organization Toxic-Free Future found flame retardants in every TV tested. Every single TV contained organohalogens, the worst class of flame retardants. One TV even contained deca-BDE, an organohalogen flame retardant that is banned in five states.

There are other ways manufacturers can reduce fire risk without relying on these harmful chemicals. Apple, for example, has replaced brominated flame retardants with safer alternatives and, in some cases, the company "eliminated [them] altogether through the use of naturally flame retardant materials such as aluminum." Remember when your Macbook used to be made out of plastic? That's a key reason they switched from plastic to aluminum — so they didn't need toxic flame retardants.

Let manufacturers know you're ready for a change!

Here's the good news: electronics companies can replace these harmful chemicals with safer alternatives. Some companies are already using alternative chemicals or innovating to avoid these chemicals altogether. Some electronics brands, like Apple, have done this for computers, and TV brands can innovate too!

In fact, the European Union recently voted to ban these chemicals in TV plastic casings starting April 2021. If the European Union can do it, so can the US!

That's why we started a petition to Best Buy, North America's #1 electronics retailer. We're asking the company to use its power to get toxic chemicals out of the TVs it sells. If European families will be getting TVs without these toxic chemicals, American families deserve the same. And Best Buy has the power to make it happen!

In the meantime, how can you reduce your family's exposure?

Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to avoid all organohalgen flame retardants. Since manufacturers and retailers aren't required to disclose their use of chemicals in most products, we can't recommend any alternative TVs. But research has shown that you may be able to reduce your family's exposure with frequent cleaning. Dust, vacuum and wash everyone's hands often, especially before eating. Because flame retardants end up in household dust, reducing exposure to dust can help. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter and regularly wet dust and wet mop.

The bottom line is that buying a TV shouldn't pollute your home with toxic chemicals—or exacerbate the plastic waste crisis. If you agree, please sign the petition to Best Buy!

12 Non-Toxic Baking Pan Essentials

for everything from cupcakes, to pie, to cornbread we've got you covered

Updated for 2019!

Whether you are a full on baker or just someone who struggles with the directions on the back of a box of cake mix, having the right pans is always a necessity. While nonstick may seem like an amazing invention to help with this, you should shy away from it (read this to learn why) and check out these great alternatives. Same goes for cooking, so check out our non-toxic alternatives to non-stick pans roundup.

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Food

Wondering What To Do With Your Germ-y Kitchen Sponge?

Here's a simple swap that will maximize cleanliness in no time!

Have you ever walked over to your sink to do the dishes, only to wrinkle your nose at how smelly your sponge is? We'll let you in on a secret… smelly sponge = lots of germs. And too many germs is the last thing that you want in your kitchen and on your dishes. So what can you? We've got a simple swap for you!

If you're using a sponge right now - Stop!

Why, you ask? To put it scientifically, sponges are gross. Studies looking at the bacteria count of "the dirtiest areas of a kitchen" repeatedly found that sponges come in first for harboring the highest germ counts (1). Sponges hold so many bacteria because they're constantly wet and easily catch food during washing (1). The wet environment combined with the food scraps create a perfect storm for encouraging germs to multiply (1). If you're dead set on using a sponge, researchers recommend either replacing your sponge weekly (which isn't good for the environment), or cleaning sponges in a bleach and water mixture (which isn't good for you) (2). Either way, it's a lose-lose. So what's the solution?

Swap your sponge out for a dish brush instead

Yep, it's truly that simple. Simply swapping out your kitchen sponge for a dish brush will help decrease the number of bacteria because:

  • Brushes have bristles that don't hold water and dry faster (3).
  • Food scraps are easier to wash off on bristles than in the nooks and crannies of sponges (3).

And the best part? Brushes don't need to be replaced as often, because they don't harbor as many germs. Hooray for a solution that is budget-friendly and earth-friendly!

References

  1. www.microbiologyjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/JPAM_Vol_11_No4_p_1687-1693.pdf
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6379783/
  3. https://time.com/5254808/how-to-wash-dishes-sponge/
Life

Our Top Three Tips for Better Recycling

What to do when you can't reduce or reuse

We all try our best to recycle, but it's not always easy! Reading the labels on plastics can be like deciphering a different language. Although we try to do our best, recycling in America is still a work in progress. Of the 300 million tons of plastic produced every year, only about 10% of it gets recycled (1). The other 90% winds up in landfills and floating in oceans, polluting nearby ecosystems. It's not just plastic that's the problem- plenty of other materials like glass, paper, electronics, batteries, and clothing are discarded in environmentally unfriendly ways.

There are still many misconceptions of what is and isn't recyclable. We've covered what those little recycling numbers actually mean, but there's still a lot to learn. The complicated process can actually discourage people from attempting to recycle, and even when they do, complicated rules can cause significant recycling bin contamination. Until there is a change in the structure of the recycling industry in the United States, we have to step up our recycling game. Here are our top three tips on how you can make your recycling as efficient as possible!

1) Familiarize yourself with your local recycling laws and regulations. A quick google search can inform you on what you your municipality recommends for cleaning, separation, and collection. You can even keep your city's recycling guide posted on your fridge for easy access!

2) Do not, we repeat, DO NOT put your recyclables in the bin inside a plastic bag. Plastic bags, like those from grocery stores, and plastic wrap packaging are major contaminants in recycle bins and cause problems for facilities that process recycled materials. These bags can be recycled but have to be brought to specialty facilities, and can be dropped off at many grocery stores. Try using paper bags instead, and be sure to toss them in the correct bin after use!

3) Purchase items you know to be recyclable! Stick to products that are made from paper, glass, aluminium, or steel. Always check with your local recycling center about what to do with plastic items- you'd be surprised how much plastic can't be recycled! And don't forget to thoroughly clean out any food residue before tossing a product into the recycling bin.

Why is it so important to recycle correctly? Well, bin contamination is a huge issue, especially now that China is no longer buying our recyclable waste. Contaminating recycling bins with non-recyclable products makes the recycling process more difficult, time consuming, and expensive. If batches of recyclables are too contaminated, they will get thrown in the landfill with everything else. Which is exactly what we're trying to avoid in the first place (2,3)!

Contribute to a healthier environment; support the industry by buying materials made out of recycled goods! And be sure to reduce consumption of disposable materials, and reuse items as many times as possible before recycling. If you are still not sure about best recycling practices, this EPA guide is a great resource.


References

  1. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/
  2. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/03/...
  3. https://theweek.com/articles/819488/america-recycling-problem-heres-how-solve\
  4. https://www.recycleacrossamerica.org/tips-to-recycle-right
  5. https://www.npr.org/2019/08/20/750864036/u-s-recycling-industry-is-struggling-to-figure-out-a-future-without-china
Remember that takeout container you had last night? What color was it? It probably was black, right? While those flexible, bendy and just the right size for packing leftovers boxes might seem perfect, they are far from it. The black color of the plastics actually masks a lot more than that last piece of sesame chicken hiding in the corner.
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Food

Is Climate Change Making Your Food Less Safe To Eat?

The role of climate change in foodborne illnesses

Do you have big cooking plans this Thanksgiving? Us too! We love cooking when the holiday season rolls around, but did you ever think that climate change is something you would think while prepping your food? Well, the raw ingredients in your kitchen contain harmful microbes that can cause foodborne illnesses, and climate change has been linked to an increase in these diseases.

As the global temperature rises and rainfall patterns change, bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other harmful vectors flourish. These changes in climatic factors increase disease transmission efficacy and improve survival rates of these vectors (1). In other words, climate change has allowed these harmful microbes to evolve and be better equipped to cause diseases. On top of that, they are more resilient and harder to kill.

So what should you be on the lookout for? Good question. Below are just a few examples of agents that may be altered by climate variability in the United States (1, 2). All of them can potentially be found on the foods that we consume.

  • E. coli O157: this specific strain of E. coli is particularly prone to climate change. We ingest this microbe through contaminated foods such as raw or undercooked ground meat products and raw milk (3).
  • Salmonella: Salmonella is caused by a bacteria that lives in the intestinal tract of animals. Just like E. coli O157, Salmonella can cause foodborne illnesses through consumption of contaminated ingredients.
  • Campylobacter: almost all raw poultry you see in the grocery store contains this microbe. This bacteria causes foodborne illnesses by cross-contaminating other foods and by surviving in undercooked meat. This makes Campylobacter one of the most common causes of diarrhea in the United States.

Overall, changes in climatic factors will be the largest culprit of food-related illnesses and mortality (4). This accounts for under-nutrition, communicable and non-communicable diseases, as well as vector-borne diseases.

The good news is that these foodborne illnesses are highly preventable!

While climate change may improve the environment in which these microbes thrive, we can take steps to prevent foodborne illnesses from happening in our own kitchens. The USDA recommends the Be Food Safe prevention steps (5):

  • Clean: Wash your hands and cooking surfaces frequently.
  • Separate: Don't cross-contaminate your foods. Keep your meats and veggies separate.
  • Cook: Cook ingredients to their proper temperatures.
  • Chill: Refrigerate foods promptly.

By following these guidelines, the vast majority of these harmful microbes can be removed or killed. Keep yourself and your family free from foodborne illnesses!


References

  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0963996910002231
  2. https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/foodborne/basics.html
  3. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/e-coli##targetText=Sources%20and%20transmission&targetText=E.%20coli%20O157%3AH7%20is%20transmitted%20to%20humans%20primarily%20through,meat%20products%20and%20raw%20milk.
  4. https://www.who.int/foodsafety/_Climate_Change.pdf
  5. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/cleanliness-helps-prevent-foodborne-illness/ct_index
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