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

Why Creating Your Own Compost Might Be Easier Than You Think

We've got step-by-step instructions, tips and tricks to get you the best looking soil around (seriously!)

You made it! Now that you're here, don't run yet! Gone are the days when composting meant throwing a heap of your leftovers in the dirt and banking on magic to make some soil (not that you still can't). BUT, we've got everything you need to know to jump on the composting train, reduce your carbon footprint and start saving money on fertilizer without all the headache and mess.

Keep Reading Show Less
Want more news like this?
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update!
By submitting above, you agree to our privacy policy.
/ SOCIAL

9 Veggies You Can Grow Indoors

Gourmet dinners with fresh veggies and no more plastic herb packets are in your future

What's better than having an indoor plant baby? How about one that gives you food? Even if you don't have a backyard, you can grow some vegetables and herbs on a windowsill inside. We found 9 veggies and herbs that are easy to grow inside and are useful to have on hand.

Keep Reading Show Less

Why You Should Care About Soil Contamination If You're Starting a Garden in Your Backyard

Here's the dirt-y details you're going to want to know and what to do about it

Dreary winter blues might have you dreaming of blue skies, warm weather and some home grown vegetables. But before you go jetting off to your nearest Home Depot or nursery, you might want to take a second and get to know your soil. We're serious! No, not the hello, my name is ____, more like the hey, what's in my soil? Not all soils are created equally and trust us when we say that you'll definitely want to make sure the soil you're using for growing food to eat is top notch!

Keep Reading Show Less
Home

What All Those Certifications on Mattresses Actually Mean

Label Education: Decoding what GOTS, GOLS, Greenguard, Organic, and more mean

Choosing the right mattress is so important for sound sleep and health, yet with so many options the shopping can be confusing and stressful! Obviously you want to take comfort and pricing into consideration, but there are some chemical ingredients you might want to consider too. Standard synthetic foam mattresses can contain various harmful chemicals we don't want to be sleeping on. And these chemicals can evaporate into the air, or collect in house dust, which is yucky and no good for your family's health.

The great news is that there are a bunch of healthier alternatives, and these labels below can help you find them. We also have a roundup of 12 non-toxic mattress brands if you just want a quick guide to organic mattresses and natural mattresses you can buy.

Keep Reading Show Less
Roundups

12 Non-Toxic Mattresses

options for every budget that are free of any harsh chemicals and petroleum-based foam, including organic mattresses

Step 1: Start researching organic mattresses or natural mattresses. Step 2: Get confused! Step 3: Look at our roundup where we did all the research on safe, well reviewed, comfy mattresses for you. Step 4: Order a healthy, non-toxic, organic mattress Step 5: Sleep more peacefully. We found options for every budget, so what are you waiting for?

All of the mattress brands we found use natural materials like 100% natural latex, organic cotton, and wool, and do not use petroleum-based foams or no chemical flame retardants. For our budget picks ($), a base model queen retailed for less than $1000. For the quality picks ($), a queen ran between $1000 and $2000. And the splurge picks ($) retailed for above $2000. Some brands use inner coils and some are made of just latex layers. We hope this list of natural mattress brands is a good starting place for a better night's sleep.

Keep Reading Show Less

Are your noisy neighbors and traffic noises from outside making you mad? Quite possibly! All the noise you experience throughout the day might be taking a toll on your health. Besides just being supremely annoying, studies show that noise pollution - yep that's really what it's called - is intricately linked to many mental and physical health problems.

Not only does the constant annoyance of irritating noises make people more anxious, but noise makes working more difficult. The noise itself disrupts memory, affects your ability to focus, and decreases performance (1). And if the noise is disrupting your sleep, then that might mean even more bad news!

Keep Reading Show Less

We all have our favorite lipstick. The one that we wear practically every day, is acceptable for work and going out, and that you are always sure to buy extras of, just in case the store runs out. Maybe yours is bright red, a nude pink, or maybe you like to go all out and wear a different shade every week. Regardless of how you get your perfect pout, it might be time to put on your detective hat and take a deeper dive into what makes your lips shine.

Keep Reading Show Less
Want more news like this?
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update!
By submitting above, you agree to our privacy policy.
/ SOCIAL