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
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No matter where you live, sustainability is becoming a hot topic. It might be a friendly reminder sign to bring your reusable bag to the grocery store, a city government conversation about not using straws, or it could run as deep as cities committing to be zero waste - some as early as next year. With all of this comes the question of what sort of products are best for the world? Is biodegradable really any different from compostable. Should I opt for compostable options over recyclable ones? Does reusing things help?

All of these are great questions! And the answer to all of them has an impact on our planet, and oftentimes our health, too.

So, first of all, what do all of these different terms that are being thrown around really mean? Let's start with the one we probably have all heard the most: recyclable.

Recyclable

Recycling is the process of taking a product and breaking it down to use it again, often as a raw material. We all know that we can recycle paper, plastic, and cans. In most places, recycling facilities can also deal with glass. All of this is great, but let's break down the concept a little bit more. Quick note, each city is slightly different and you should check exactly what can and can't be recycled in your neighborhood before you just assume you are good to go.

Tossing something you think or hope can be recycled into the recycling bin is often called wishful or aspirational recycling. While your heart is in the right place, doing this might actually be worse than just trashing something you aren't clear on. Why? Because that one iffy thing can actually be enough to compromise a full batch of recycling, which could mean everything ends up in the landfill instead of just the one questionable item. In those situations, the best option would be to confirm before you dispose of it. And, if your neighborhood doesn't recycle it, ask your city to start accepting those items. But, in the meantime, if you don't know, don't just hope it can be recycled.

Back to the topic at hand, what is actually recyclable? Most plastics that hold their shape can be recycled (like water bottles, food containers, bottles for household items, etc.). In some places, they have even started being able to accept items like plastic grocery bags, shrink wrap, and plastic wrap if it is packaged correctly. Other commonly accepted items for recycling include paper, cardboard, unbroken glass and metal (including tinfoil if it's clean and in a large enough ball).

Some common items that need special recycling (but are in fact recyclable) include: batteries, electronics, and fabric (and clothing). Check with your waste management provider to see what can and can't be recycled in your neighborhood.

Compostable

This is becoming more common in larger metropolitan cities. Composting is a way to turn items made of natural materials back into a nutrient rich soil. Often times the compost is for food scraps, but other items that are fully compostable include yard scraps, dead flowers, items made of untreated wood, and those made of pure cotton. While starting with food scraps is the easiest, the more you look around the more you will find items for other parts of your life that are completely compostable.

Compostable items are great because instead of going to landfill or needing to be processed and turned into something else, they actually breakdown themselves in a natural setting (or in an industrial facility) to create something useful right away.

But, what happens if you have items that are compostable but don't have access to composting. Side note: you can create a compost pile in your own backyard (or under your sink). We know that isn't for everyone though. So, what happens if these items end up in just in your standard trash bin? You might think that it's still an improvement and they will break down, right? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that's not exactly the case. Compostable items break down into nutrient rich soil only if they have the right conditions. And a traditional landfill is not a place with the right conditions.

Industrial facilities have the optimal conditions for composting. These facilities regulate temperature, moisture, and air flow in order to ensure a compostable item breaks down as fast as possible. At-home compost is more prone to temperature/moisture/air flow changes and might not break down as quickly as it would in an industrial setting.

Composting works best when the items have access to oxygen and are regularly being turned over. A landfill is basically the opposite. It's an anaerobic environment where most of the pile actually doesn't have access to oxygen. That means that if your compostable takeout container ends up in the landfill, it won't break down as intended. Instead, it will mostly likely just act like a plastic container and stay around for a lot longer than intended.

So, while recognizing compostable items is a good first step, purchasing and using compostable items in place of other items has the biggest impact when they actually end up in a compost pile. Although, we do want to mention that the production of plastic is pretty nasty for a lot of reasons, so opting for compostable items made of cotton, bamboo, and even PLA (that vegetable based plastic cup you see at some restaurants now), is probably still better for the environment and your health.

Biodegradable

The dictionary definition of biodegradable is a substance that can break down naturally without causing any harm (1). This is very similar to compostable, but the biggest difference is that what it breaks down to doesn't cause harm as opposed to starting with an organically occurring materials. Therefore, man-made or chemically produced items can still be considered biodegradable, while not necessarily being compostable. This is like a square being a rectangle but a rectangle not being a square. Those items that are compostable are also biodegradable, but not everything biodegradable is compostable.

Again, biodegradable options are still a step in the right direction. It does mean that the ingredients break down over time (that's a perk) and when they do break down, the base components are not harmful to the environment (also a perk).

One drawback of biodegradable materials is that there is not necessarily a timeframe for when the items will break down. It could be many years before they start to degrade. In most cases, biodegradable isn't really saying much about the product. Think of it the same way you do products labeled "natural."

The bottom line

If we were to rank these terms for which ones are best for the planet and in turn our health, we'd say first look for items that are compostable, recyclable, and lastly biodegradable. Compostable items, if properly disposed of, will break down completely and can them be used to grow more resources. Recyclable items can be turned into raw materials that can then be used to make new things without needing to create completely new resources. And finally, biodegradable options will eventually break down, but we don't know when and there is no plan to use them for any additional benefit.

Of course, we are big proponents of reusing items when possible, but we also know that it can be incredibly hard to live your life without there being some items that needs to be disposed of. So, go on with this new information to help you think about what to toss and how to do it best.





References

  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/biodegradable
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