Are Lists of Banned Ingredients Actually Doing More Harm Than Good?

Although not a new phenomenon, recent media discussions about lists of “banned” food ingredients at various retail food stores have created new buzz around the issue. But, are these lists based on scientific evidence, and could they actually lead consumers to make less healthful choices than they would have made otherwise?

An apparent trend has sparked in recent years whereby some retail food chains have issued lists of ingredients that are banned from products on their shelves. These ingredients – such as artificial colors, low-calorie sweeteners, artificial flavors, and preservatives – have often been associated with “processed” foods, which are often cited for public health problems in the U.S. But such broad-sweeping lists overlook the important roles of food ingredients for maintaining food safety, quality, and functionality, and do not address unintended consequences and what we know about consumer behavior.

While scientific evidence supports the safety of approved food ingredients used in foods and beverages found in retail stores today, some chains have made a decision to ban these ingredients, citing a variety of reasons, including meeting consumer demand and because the ingredients do not align with their “philosophy.” While perhaps well-intentioned at its core, this approach removes choice, and in some cases what remains are higher-priced alternatives or products that have a shorter shelf-life than the banned products and may contain other ingredients that have not been on the market as long or researched as thoroughly as their banned counterparts.

The mere fact that a food ingredient is man-made or “artificial” does not inherently make it bad or unsafe. In fact, many man-made food ingredients have the same properties as naturally occurring ingredients, and they are not under nearly the same level of scrutiny. In addition, many artificial ingredients, such as low-calorie sweeteners and artificial flavors and colors, have been researched and tested to a far greater extent than “natural” ingredients and, as a result, have a strong safety record, as well as a long history of safe use in foods and beverages.

While man-made ingredients have been used to improve the taste, quality, appearance, and texture of our foods, they have also played an important role in improving the nutritional profiles (e.g. reducing the calorie, carbohydrate, sugar, and fat content), as well as the safety of many foods (e.g. using approved preservatives to delay food spoilage, which can cause foodborne illness). For example, foods that do not use preservatives typically will not stay fresh as long as those that do use these ingredients. Should people consume foods after they have begun to spoil, they could be exposing themselves to foodborne illness.

Terms of “Confusement”
Blogs and social media have been abuzz about avoiding products with ingredients produced through biotechnology, also referred to as “GMOs.” These lists often include approved, safe food ingredients and additives that are not in fact produced with biotechnology, but may be man-made or “artificial.” These terms should not be used interchangeably, as they are different and use entirely different production methods (see the Food Insight article in this issue on consuming nutritious foods irrespective of processing for more information). Despite that fact, both approved artificial ingredients and additives, and approved foods produced through biotechnology, are safe, approved foods and ingredients. For more on which foods/ingredients are produced through biotechnology or contain ingredients produced with biotechnology, visit the IFIC Foundation’s “Food Biotechnology: A Communicator’s Guide to Improving Understanding."

While the reason cited by some retail food chains for banning certain ingredients is to protect public health, there is no evidence that doing so will lead consumers to make more healthful choices. In fact, the 2011 IFIC Foundation Food & Health Survey found that nearly two-thirds of consumers (63%) prefer to be told what to eat, rather than what not to eat.

While high-fructose corn syrup may be banned from a store’s products, sugar, which is nutritionally and calorically identical, generally is not. How does this help improve consumers’ health? The message sent to consumers here is one of confusion. A message about practicing moderation and focusing on calories from all sources would be less confusing and more practical.

Moreover, common ingredients on stores’ “banned” lists often also include low-calorie sweeteners, which have been scientifically shown to help with weight loss or weight management when substituted for caloric sweeteners. In addition, it is also important to consider the potential unintended consequences of ingredient bans. For example if ingredients that improve the flavor of foods intended for weight loss (such as low-fat and low-calorie products) are banned, people may be less likely to eat these foods, as the most important factor consumers consider when they purchase and consume foods and beverages is taste (IFIC Foundation, 2013). Avoiding low-calorie foods that can aid in weight loss is exactly what the list creators should not want as consumers continue to struggle with weight gain and weight-related chronic health issues.

Attempting to eliminate supposed causes of obesity with lists of banned ingredients is not only lacking scientific evidence, but it is a losing battle, as anything with calories can lead to weight gain if consumed in excess of calories burned, and there is no one food or ingredient responsible for obesity or other public health problems in the U.S.  And, in fact, food ingredients have helped to improve the safety and healthfulness of our food. Current FDA-approved food ingredients and additives have undergone extensive research and testing before being permitted to be used in foods and beverages, and have been found to be safe for the intended amounts and uses in foods and beverages. Ultimately, consumer safety and healthfulness should be the number one priority, and safe, approved ingredients can play a role in a balanced lifestyle that includes a healthful diet and regular physical activity.

While a desire to emulate consumer values and meet consumer demands is admirable, what will be more helpful to consumers is to inform them about eating a healthful and balanced diet that includes all of the choices that regulators, scientific experts, and health professional associations alike have deemed safe (taking health conditions and related special dietary requirements of the individual into account), and let them make their own choices.

For more information on common functions and uses of food ingredients and additives in our food, please visit: What’s in Our Food: Understanding Common Food Ingredients.