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!