Petroleum byproducts. Bug parts. Wood shavings. Duck feathers. If you can imagine it, you're probably eating it every day as one of more than 3,000 natural and artificial chemicals that appear in our food supply.
But after a decade of reporting on abominable additives, preposterous preservatives and crazy calorie counts, the editors at Eat This, Not That! are excited to report on a healthy new food trend: Major food manufacturers are finally stripping unnecessary chemicals from their products. And that may help you and your family strip off the pounds.
General Mills announced this week that it would eliminate artificial colors and flavors from its entire line of cereals, swapping out chemicals like red dyes (some of which have already been banned in most countries) for natural colorings from healthy sources like vegetables, joining Kraft, Nestle and other large companies in a race to clean up their acts.
Why is this such a great trend? Artificial colorings have been linked to everything from attention problems to obesity; in fact, studies show that people who eat highly processed foods tend to weigh more than those who don't, even when calorie counts remain the same. Yet we really know very little about these chemicals: The Food and Drug Administration's database of "Everything Added to Food in the United States" is really an America's Most Unwanted list of additives, preservatives and flavor enhancers that food manufacturers (not the FDA itself, mind you) have decided are "generally recognized as safe."
If you've been trying to cut artificial foods out of your life, take a second look at some of these products. (And don't miss our latest Special Report: The Best and Worst Restaurants for Your Waistline 2015!)
Brand: General Mills
What They Promise: GM says that 60 percent of their cereals now don't use artificial colors—like Cheerio's and Chex—and that by the end of 2016, 90 percent will be completely free of artificial colors and flavors.
Products: Eventually, this will include all cereals, including Trix, Lucky Charms and Reese's Puffs.
Why This Is Great: A few years ago, researchers discovered that the artificial colors Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6 may promote Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in children. In fact, Norway and Sweden have already banned the use of these artificial colors, and in the rest of the EU, foods containing these additives must be labeled with the phrase: "May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children."
When It Takes Effect: The research is currently underway, and GM estimates that the entire line will be done by 2017, with cereals that include marshmallows, like Lucky Charms, the last to roll out. To enjoy your old favorites—and slim down, too—don't miss this essential list of the 12 Best Brand-Name Cereals for Weight Loss.
What They Promise: The company announced this past spring that they would strip all artificial preservatives and synthetic colors from their iconic blue boxes of macaroni. They will replace the chemicals with those derived from natural sources like turmeric, paprika and annatto, a tree with vibrant orange-red seeds.
Products: Original Kraft Macaroni & Cheese
Why This Is Great: Yellow 6, one of the colors currently being used in the pasta dish, contains benzidine and 4-amino-biphenyl, two known human carcinogens.
When It Takes Effect: January 2016
What They Promise: The company announced earlier in the month that it would remove artificial flavors and "certified colors" in addition to reducing salt by 10 percent in its frozen pizza and snack products
Products: Butterfinger, Baby Ruth, Digiorno, Tombstone, California Pizza Kitchen, Jack's, Hot Pocket and Lean Pockets brands
Why This Is Great: We're thrilled about the reduction of artificial colors—for the reasons mentioned above—but cheers to also reducing the sodium count. Sodium causes your body to retain water, which leads to pressure on your heart—and a rounder belly. (To stay slim all through summer, uncover these 14 Ways to Lose Your Belly in 14 Days.)
When It Takes Effect: By the end of 2015.
What They Promise: The sandwich chain announced earlier this month that they plan to remove preservatives and artificial colors and flavors from their core products
Products: Sandwiches, salads, cookies and soups
Why This Is Great: Caramel coloring—which is currently being used in a number of their breads and meats—has been shown to cause cancer in animals and is a possible carcinogen for humans, too.
When It Takes Effect: Over the next 18 months
Brand: Pizza Hut
What They Promise: The popular pizza chain—once home to P'Zones, a calzone they described as "Over 1 pound of pizza goodness"—has been playing it both ways lately. Their just-announced Hot Dog Bites pizza plays to those looking for gross, mash-up pizzas, while in May, they also announced plans to remove artificial flavors from its pizzas. (Previously, they had removed MSG and partially hydrogenated oils.)
Products: They promise to remove artificial flavors from the entire menu.
Why This Is Great: As the Pizza Hut CEO said: "Today's consumer more than ever before wants to understand the ingredients that make up the foods that they enjoy." But we're also excited that they plan to reduce sodium in their pizzas, which will take effect next year.
When It Takes Effect: The artificial flavors should be removed by the end of next month. Until then, learn which pies to avoid with this definitive list of The Worst Pizzas of 2015!
What They Promise: The fast-casual restaurant chain promised to remove a long list of ingredients ranging from artificial preservatives and sweeteners to artificial colors and flavors, outlined in their published No-No List, from all of their products.
Why This Is Great: Titanium dioxide, only one of the ingredients getting the axe, is a whitening agent added to yogurts, marshmallows, even sunscreen, and Panera has historically used it in products like their mozzarella cheese. It's a liquid metal, and worse: The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified it a possible carcinogen in humans. It has also been linked to asthma, emphysema, DNA breakdown, and neurological disorders — that's why it made our Eat This, Not That! report 5 Additives Worse Than High Fructose Corn Syrup—discover the rest!
When It Takes Effect: By the end of 2016