2015 may very well be remembered as the year the food industry took a close look at its ingredients.
On Tuesday, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell announced they would remove artificial colors and flavors from most of their food by the end of the year. PepsiCo has announced plans to axe aspartame, an artificial sweetener, from Diet Pepsi later this year. Starting January 2016, Kraft’s iconic macaroni and cheese product will be free of artificial dyes. McDonald’s declared that within two years it will stop selling chicken treated with antibiotics and milk from cows treated with the artificial growth hormone rBST. Nestlé said its products will be free of artificial colors and flavors by the end of this year. Dunkin’ Donuts began removing titanium dioxide from its powdered sugar. Panera Bread created a “no-no list” (PDF) of 150 additives that it plans to phase out of all its food by the end of 2016.
It’s a lineup that suggests the food movement is gaining ground. And it is. But the public health issues Americans face will not be resolved by Big Food’s piecemeal and arbitrary decisions, which are often made for PR reasons that divert attention from the fact that many of these companies’ offerings remain unhealthy.
That’s not to say there isn’t some good news. Take McDonald’s announcement. Treating livestock with subtherapeutic (i.e., low-dose) antibiotics is a serious public health concern. Currently, approximately 80 percent of antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to livestock. The United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) have warned that the inappropriate use of antibiotics in livestock could have — and in some cases has already started to have — serious consequences on human health, including hampering the treatment of human infections.
McDonald’s serves 400 million pounds of chicken per year, and competitors take cues from its successes and failures, so its announcement does signify a shift with potentially profound impact. But “potentially” is the operative word, since it made a similar pledge in 2003 that it has yet to fulfill.
Not all the recent announcements have the same potential impact. Panera Bread’s “no-no list” confusingly lists harmful and harmless ingredients side by side, as though they were one and the same. It includes partially hydrogenated oils (artificial trans fats that have been shown to negatively affect heart health), added nitrites and nitrates (which the American Institute for Cancer Research identifies as one reason processed meats increase cancer risk), vanillin (a harmless vanilla flavoring) and L-cysteine (an amino acid produced by our bodies that is also commonly used as a dough conditioner, sourced from human or animal hair). Yuck factor and artisanal integrity aside, there are no legitimate reasons to be concerned about L-cysteine in food.
PepsiCo’s decision to replace aspartame in Diet Pepsi with sucralose (Splenda) may appear to be a good step, but even sucralose accustoms taste buds to intense levels of sweetness and can negatively affect gut flora (the microorganisms in animal digestive tracts), which in turn can affect levels of appetite-regulating hormones. In the case of Dunkin’ Donuts, titanium dioxide has the potential to disrupt gut flora, so its removal has some scientific merit, but the fact remains that the chain’s frosted maple creme doughnut contains refined flour, artificial trans fats and 6 teaspoons of added sugar.
Many of the announcements appear to hinge on a calculated public relations strategy meant to signal that these companies are turning over a new leaf. Part of the motivation may be a desire to get ahead of public opinion, with the polarized rhetoric about food additives including some hyperbolic labeling of any unpronounceable ingredient as toxic.
There’s also an economic motivation. With McDonald’s revenue falling 2.4 percent in one year, the food industry is nervously watching trends. For example, millennials, who are fast overtaking baby boomers as a powerful consumer bloc, are “more likely to seek out locally grown produce, environmentally sustainable meat and nutritionally dense superfoods,” according to a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor. It’s no wonder Big Food is competing for their disposable income.
But any discussion of public health requires thinking more broadly about the United States’ current health statistics. Heart disease is our leading cause of death, and 1 in 3 American adults has high blood pressure. The WHO recommends eating less than 12 teaspoons of sugar a day, but Americans eat an average of 20. The average American also eats 15 grams of fiber a day (falling short of the recommended 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men), far exceeds daily sodium limits and comes up very short on minerals such as magnesium and potassium, which help regulate blood pressure and maintain cardiovascular health. These figures all point to one trait in particular: Americans eat too much highly processed food.
Voluntary, haphazard change from individual companies won’t reverse these figures. We need to prioritize policy-based solutions that address systemic issues, such as the artificially low price (PDF) of junk food, misguided agricultural policy that largely favors corn and soy byproducts to feed cattle or make sweeteners and oils, and racial and socioeconomic health disparities. We must also close the legal loopholes that allow companies to introduce ingredients in the food supply without having to undergo government safety reviews.
As a nutrition professional working in corporate wellness, I will continue to encourage my clients to pay attention to ingredient lists and encourage them to cook more at home. Let’s continue advocating for a better system that scrutinizes what goes into our food. But let’s also make sure we don’t lose sight of the big picture.