Why We Avoid Artificial Ingredients

One quote from Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food pretty much says it all when it comes to artificial sweeteners, flavors and colors:

One of the problems with the products of food science is that, as Joan Gussow has pointed out, they lie to your body; their artificial colors and flavors and synthetic sweeteners and novel fats confound the senses we rely on to assess new foods and prepare our bodies to deal with them. Foods that lie leave us with little choice but to eat by the number, consulting labels rather than our senses.

Another issue with artificial foods is that, just like other highly processed foods, they’re relatively new and therefore we don’t know exactly how their consumption affects the body long term.  Remember how margarine was touted as a healthy alternative to butter when decades later we learned the dangers of  hydrogenated oils?

This post reminds me that I’ve been wanting to share the difference between “natural” and “organic” food products. Packaging and labels can be so darn confusing these days! When a product says it is “natural” it just means that the ingredients come from something naturally created like a plant or an animal. If a product weren’t “natural” it could contain artificial ingredients like Red Dye #40 that’s chemically created or “invented” by food scientists in a lab somewhere. Sound appetizing yet? “Organic” food is a whole different story and refers to products that have not been treated with synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides, which is of course a very good thing.

Just for the record, whether you are buying food that is “all natural” or “organic” it does not mean those products are whole grain, low in sodium, or lacking loads of sweeteners like sugar. To put things in perspective, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is actually a “natural” ingredient since it is made from corn. Now if given the choice I would much rather consume HFCS over an artificially created sweetener like Splenda, but it is obviously still less than ideal. With that being said, natural products are a far better choice than artificial ones although we would by no means automatically deem them as being “real food.”

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  1. 2 adults and I babysit my 2 young grandchildren during the week. I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. Wish me luck!

  2. Have you found a natural food coloring of any kind? My daughter always gets excited when she can have pink food.

  3. This may be a silly question, but is there a list somewhere of ingredients that are “artificial”? Looking forward to begining our healthier life as a family, but just trying to kind of learn everything right now. I am afraid I would miss something that I didn’t realize was “artifical”. TIA

  4. My family and I will do the pledge for longer than a week, that’s two adults and two children. I do not understand why we cannot have stricter standards like the U.K. when it comes to our food especially since Mrs.Obama is very health conscious and working so hard to make the U.S. a healthier place you would think that something would have been implemented to be as safe as the U.K’s food standards. Especially because one of the Obama campaigns have been to eat healthier and to help fight obesity banning these items would help.

  5. How do you do the “real food” pledge 100 percent when you both work full time? Many nights, I do not have time to cook and we’re forced to go with reheatables or convenience foods. The weekends are just as busy this time of year too.

  6. My brother recommended I might like this website. He was once totally right. This submit actually made my day. You can not believe simply how so much time I had spent for this info! Thank you!

  7. Count us in. 2A 3K
    We are a Feingold 1 family. We started diet therapy almost 3 years ago and fave seen significant changes. We avoid added dyes like red 40, yellow 5 and 6, blue 1, artificial flavoring like vanillin, hfcs, and preservatives like BHT. We also avoid high salicylate foods. I look forward to reading more on your blog. Great pledge idea!!

  8. I am a mom of 3 boys and have followed the Feingold diet for over 2 years. It has made a drastic difference in the life of my oldest son and my husband. Both have symptoms of ADD & my son SPD. The Feingold diet is a great place to start if you want to really avoid artificial additives. They research & compile a 100+ page grocery list of foods without artificial ingredients, making it easier for the busy family to avoid the bad stuff. It is so worth it and becomes second nature after a short period of time. The results seen in my son and husband are the overriding motivation and we will never go back to artificials in our food.

  9. We are trying our best. I can only do it for myself and do my best with the kids. Other people feed them, too. We still eat sugar, but we don’t eat artificial sugars and I personally never supply HFCS in our foods. 2 adults, 2 kids.

  10. Sign us up, myself and my son. We have already started this process because my son has ADHD and it has made a big difference. We also eat mostly vegetables and organic meat. I love that people say there is nothing wrong with our food but our children are all sick with “allergies, ADHD,stomach problems…” and when you change their diet to healthy foods not processed foods and they get better, people still don’t believe it. Maybe one day!

  11. I love your blog! This coffee creamer addict needs some ideas for alternatives to traditional coffee creamers. I’ve had a hard time finding any that don’t have a million unrecognizable ingredients. Help! I’m addicted to flavored creamers!

  12. Not in, but on board for more of the good stuff (snack = sliced pear, apple sauce, yogurt, nuts), less of the bad stuff (chocolate pudding, goldfish crackers). We are liberal with the backsliding, but aspirational regardless of stumbles.

  13. You do realize that all food is real food, right? You made a comment in one of your latest postings that struck me as odd. You said that food ingredients trick your body. This things, like everything in this world is a mixture of chemicals. Your body doesn’t see Cheeto’s or a banana, it sees simple and complex carbs, salt, fat, potassium, protein, and uses what it can after the food is broken down, and either stores the rest as energy(fat) or excretes it out of the body.

    I can only think of 2 truly fake foods: 1. In the movie, ‘Hook’, Robin Williams’ character meets up with the Lost Boys and their leader Rufio. They sit down for a meal, but there is nothing there, they were eating air and using their imaginations to pretend they had food. 2. Plastic or wax fruit that is used as decorative centerpieces on dining room table.

    Everything else? Real.

    1. “Real food” is obviously a relative term.

      My body might not “see” Cheeto’s or a banana, but it certainly responds to them differently. And many of us feel that artificial ingredients in food (i.e., foods created in a labratory) are poisoning us slowly. YOU might not feel this way, and that is OK. But it seems you are just arguing over semantics.

      1. If you lived to be 1,000 yrs old, then you might have an argument for being poisoned slowly. It’s more than semantics, it’s influencing what people eat through slander. It’s the liberal version of anti-intellectualism and anti-science. It’s really no different than believing the earth is only 6,000 years old.

      2. Sam, politics has nothing to do with it. I’m a conservative libertarian and I’m completely aghast at what Big Food has done to our diets.

        If you’re comfortable eating genetically-modified, laboratory-created, artificially-sweetened… well you get my point, food – have at it. I’m looking at the glass bottle that holds the milk I give my children and it says “100% Milk, The Way God Intended.”

        I’m sticking with natural.

      3. Unless it’s flavored, it’s all 100% milk. You’ve been tricked by many of the same companies you claim to despise. They trick you into paying a premium for something that has no greater value. It is primarily a failing of science education in our country coupled with an irrational fear of anybody that makes a profit that leads, otherwise intelligent people to essentially believe in voodoo.

        You will find virtually no food scientists either in academia or in industry that give any credence to your viewpoints, because they are empirically wrong. It’s not a bias from profit, either, as organic processors prove you can make a profit making food a different way. It’s not an allegiance to a specific food company as many food science professionals change companies several times throughout their careers.

        In fact, it isn’t a company name on studies that validate or disprove something about food, it is the name of the individual food scientist that will be peer reviewed and put their reputations on the line. I don’t expect you to change your mind. Unfortunately, you’ve probably decided that your mind won’t be changed by fact and you’ll stick with your own biased anecdotal evidence which fails to account for an untold number of variables hidden from you.

      4. Sam,
        The reason you won’t find the benefits of organic foods touted from a science perspective, specifically, is that no chemical company out there wants to fund the message to be sent. Yeah, yeah, science is all about finding the truth and is always right. Money skews the view of truth, no matter what field you’re in, I’m sad to say. I worked for The Ohio State University Horticulture Department for a year or so in college and the studies were largely funded by chemical fertilizer companies, seed companies, pesticide companies, and the list goes on from there. One doctoral student was doing her thesis on organic farming and she had to go it nearly on her own because there was little to no funding for a study that did NOT promote use of conventional agriculture techniques. Her study took years, of course, because she had to grow crops of nothing to let the soil rest, rotate crops, grow grasses that would die to use for mulch to block out weed growth. She had to grow equal numbers of crops that were treated conventionally with herbicides, pesticides, anti-fungal seed coatings, etc. Her plots had to have different things done to them as they matured as well: some grown organically and let go without picking bugs or weeds, some organically with people picking bugs and/or weeds. 17 years ago, she was worried about what pesticides and herbicides were going to do to her baby so she studied how to make organic farming happen on a large scale. I don’t know how it all turned out, but her organic tomato yields were incredible and oh so juicy and delicious.

      5. That simply isn’t the case with food science. Students have a faculty adviser and never see any corporate people overseeing any studies. regardless of whether the studies get published(nearly all are submitted), they all get to present their work. It doesn’t take a study to know that the same variety of the same plant will have the same nutrients. The only differences between plants would be the soil. Any plant in better soil will perform better than any other plant, regardless of farming method, in a lesser soil. It has nothing to do with whether something is organic or not and everything to do with the growing conditions.

      6. How can you say that it’s all 100% milk? Skim milk is 100%? 2% milk is 100% milk? Our milk is raw, straight from the cow, a cow that lives on grass and not grain and brewing leftovers. Before I shake a new bottle, we have a 4 inch layer of cream at the top where it’s supposed to be instead of forced into a homogenized state. Because the cows eat their proper diet, their milk is naturally rich in the fat-soluble vitamins that have to be added to “factory” milk. The dairy farm is less than an hour from my home and I can tour it. Most of all, my kids love their milk and drink it happily.

        I will pay a premium for that any day of the week.

        As for the soil, you’re correct in that organic farming alone will not produce a more nutrient-rich product. However, many small farmers are returning to traditional methods of soil enrichment which means greater mineral content in the soil and greater mineral content in the food.

      7. Sam – I actually am interested in facts, and want to know the reasons be hinds things, and I don’t buy all organic bc you are right it doesn’t always make a difference and often it is the same companies – prime example of this is with milk. Unless you are getting it FROM a dairy itself, with no ‘processing’ done to it, I don’t think it’s worth the money. (now I wills say, if I had that close enough to me, I would do that!) But I do NOT understand why you would discourage people cooking from scratch, bc processed foods, whether you consider them ‘real’ or not, always contain more ‘salt’ or ‘sugar’ or ‘high fructose corn syrup’ than you would use when making it from scratch … and there is no debating that the over-use of these foods (again, real or not) are bad for you!

  14. I’m in (and hubby too)! I had never even thought about artificial dyes in medicine! It’s amazing what you learn on this site! On a related note….These small challenges really do make a difference. After the 10 days are over, we’ve just been carrying on as if the challenges were still on. In fact, today we stopped in at a local farm and had a tour from the lovely owner who was so proud to show off her organic chickens, cows, turkeys, and ducks. We placed an order for enough beef and chicken to last us at least a few months. Wonderful to see where your food is coming from! She also had her own organic bottled grape seed oil (plain and one infused with organic garlic) which we are trying instead of canola oil. Keep up the good work with this site…you truly are making a difference in people’s lives!

    1. 100 Days of Real Food

      So glad to hear that! I feel the same way…our hardcore 100-day pledge is over as well, but we just can’t stop eating the real, wholesome, local, organic fresh food that spoiled us during our pledge! :)

  15. I am in for this next week! One adult. This is my first time participating in a mini-challenge. I hope to use this as a springboard to a lifelong eating habit.

    Although I won’t pledge for my husband or sons yet, we are implementing many changes to our whole family’s diet much thanks to you and your blog.

  16. My mom recently told me that they put red dye in ground beef & other meats??? Shouldn’t that have to be listed as an ingredient?? I’m in for the week.

    1. This is where the biggest difficulty of this mini-pledge is.. If it’s an ingredient of an ingredient, they don’t have to list it. Like a package of cookies that says “Chocolate Chips” as one ingredient… well, of course, those chips are made of several ingredients, but because they come in a tidy little package, they only have to say “Chocolate Chips” on the label. The problem with meats is that they add a “seasoning blend” or “nitrates”, which can (and often does) include a lot of undesirable items. Prague Powder was recently discovered to contain Red #40, and is used in MANY, MANY meat products. But because it’s a sub-ingredient, you won’t find it in an ingredient list.

      They also can add preservatives to the packaging material, which, since they aren’t considered part of the food, aren’t listed, but which can and do leech into the food while it sits on the shelf. This is one of the advantages of the Feingold Association–if you need or want to purchase convenience foods, it’s extremely beneficial as they contact the companies to determine which items are truly safe. Many companies refuse to fill out the paperwork, however, making it sometimes more expensive for shoppers to stick to the approved goods… the makers of the cheaper ones won’t play ball–maybe that’s why they are cheaper. :)

  17. I plan on trying this pledge whole-heartedly when possible, for all meals, at least 5 days this week.

    I have a question for you, Lisa. I’ve also noticed artificial ingredients in children’s Tylenol and food products. Do you have a list of healthy food recommendations for babies under 1 year? I am also reading In Defense of Food currently, and have a real issue with formula. With that said, my baby is 85-90% breastfed, but due to my job, I have to supplement with formula. Are there healthier options out there?


    1. 100 Days of Real Food

      Lacie – I honestly haven’t researched formula very much since we haven’t had to buy any for so long, but the last time I checked for someone the “regular” formula options appeared to be better than the “sensitive” formulas (based on the ingredients). With any non-food products though like medicine, baby products, etc. I find there are many more decent choices at a store like Earth Fare or Whole Foods over somewhere like Target. So that might be a good place to start. Good luck!

  18. Another thought I just had is that vitamins and fruit juices are places where these artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners hide.

  19. You should watch King Corn. HFCS is nasty,nasty stuff made from GMO corn and created in a lab. Totally nasty stuff.

  20. Count me and my son (every other work) for hopefully a lifetime. I have to say this pledge is easier for me now – still struggling with the refined oil bit that about wiped out every bit of anything I had purchased thinking I was doing “well” LOL Thank you Lisa!!!!

  21. You can count me in and my kids :D I really like this mini pledges. They have really been making me take a hard look at what we put into our bodies.

  22. I have 4 super active (translation-hyper) kids and we have recently started the Feingold program, which basically eliminates all food coloring, preservatives & flavors. It’s very difficult and pricey, but I can definitely see a change in my kids when we stick to elminating these horrible things.

  23. I’m in! 2 adults and 3 kids for the whole week. I think this one will be pretty easy for us at this point. (Never thought I’d say that, though!)

  24. I’m in….hate all the artificial dyes and I hate it even more that we can’t get them to ban them in the US. And they have the recipes/technology…they are banned in Europe and they sell many of the same products.
    xo jana

  25. This one is going to be HARD! It seems everything (except what comes from our garden!) has flavors or colors…or something added to it! Even things labeled “Certified Organic” have “Natural Flavors” in the ingredient list. And will the company tell you what that means…? I’ve had NO luck! We will do our best this week – 1 adult, 1 child. Today is CSA farm pick-up day & I just stocked up on my locally grown, grass fed beef & chicken. Hopefully, we’ll make it. :-)

  26. Yesterday I had a cup of coffee at a hotel breakfast bar. I was happy to see they had honey packets. Except when I read them they were “honey sauce” packets. Ingredients? Honey, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Sweetener, Sugar and Coloring. Really. yes, really! In that order.

    It is really hard to find “pure” whole food products. Thanks for listening to my little rant. And I’m in with my three kiddos…to try eat nothing artificial this week!

  27. I am with you Bethany, I have a 30 year old man who ate horribly as a child and trying to get him to change has been tough, but this is definitely a challenge I am willing to take on. Thank you! We are in!

  28. cheryl henning

    I am up for the challenge. We actually are pretty crunchy already- but I give in when I’m tired or it’s super busy and stop by a drive thru, or if it’s at a party, I let them have the chips, and junk everyone else is having. So- at home, we are good. Out and about- another story. So this week- I will commit to being prepared with alternatives for when we are out and about so I don’t compromise!

  29. I’m so glad to see this pledge! I’ve shared our family’s experience with Lisa, but maybe sharing it here will help someone struggling as we were. Our 5 yr old daughter was showing signs of ADHD symptoms for years. She could never be still, talked constantly, couldn’t finish her sentences, the list goes on and on. When she started having issues in her pre-k class I began researching alternatives to ‘traditional’ ADHD treatments – those drugs just weren’t something I was willing to try. I learned that my daughter didn’t have ADHD, she had a chemical sensitivity to the additives in her food. We cut out all food dyes, artificial flavorings, BHT, and all other petroleum products from our home – which meant changing even our toothpaste, shampoo, and detergents. Within 2 days of switching to all natural products we had a different daughter. She sat in her chair and finished her dinner for the first time ever! She talked to me about her day, she wasn’t irritable or aggravated over every little thing. We used to have to use time outs several times daily, and since starting this program we haven’t had a single one. It was a life changing discovery for us and we’re so thankful to have a resource like 100 Days of Real Food to help cheer us on! Eating a completely natural, organic diet can be daunting these days, but once you know what those chemicals are doing to your family you will never question whether it’s worth the effort. If you are a parent you should do this pledge! I’d love to hear if anyone notices a difference in their children’s well-being after doing this. And if you need resources for all-natural products I’d be happy to help – goodness knows I’ve done the research!

    1. Susan, thanks for sharing that story. My husband was diagnosed with ADHD and ODD when he was a child and he has very poor eating habits. Reading that made me wish that his mother had tried the same on him when he was still young and his palette was more paletable (sp?) I have tried to get him to eat better but 30 years of habits are hard to break when you don’t think they are a problem. Hoping that I can do better myself so that our future children will be better for it. I’m about 5 weeks behind on the mini-challenges but will be doing this one for sure when I get to it.

    2. My 5 yr old daughter has Sensory Processing Disorder, and I have noticed in the approximately 5 weeks that we have adjusted our diet to rule out all refined sugar and most refined flour (I still go for convenience sometimes, I admit) and the artificial food dyes, that many of her symptoms have calmed. She is more able to fall asleep at night without getting up numerous times in the night (which NEVER happened before); she isn’t as prone to emotional meltdowns, and when she does have them, she is soothed much more quickly; and she is actually eating things she could never tolerate tasting or having in her mouth before. (Now to just get her to see the value. She is still so young that she just thinks I’m depriving her of the sweets she used to be able to have.) :)

    3. Susan thank you for sharing. I would love to hear about your researching. We are in the process of going organic and chemical free in the home, due to some severe health issues one of my daughters is experiencing.

    4. Susan, similar experience with us. My 5 year old daughter has always been “difficult”. Very sensitive to her world, her environment, prone to extreme meltdowns over trivial things. In September, it had gotten to the point where I was ready to take her to see a behavioral therapist. Sure enough, I started researching online regarding this type of behavior in children and came across Lisa’s blog as well as numerous articles about the American processed diet and how it relates to ADHD, etc. I thought, it’s worth a try. As soon as we started cutting out the processed foods, her behavior improved considerably. October and November was literally like living with a different child. I have been amazed at the difference in her. At first, my husband couldn’t believe that it could be the food we were eating, but now that he has seen the difference, he is totally on board with the lifestyle changes. It makes sense that a child that is sensitive in so many other ways would be sensitive to what goes into her body. I am so grateful that I was able to find useful information. And I have started making it my mission to tell everyone I know with young children about what I have learned. If I can help one other family to “see the light” it will be worth it!

      1. Hi Stacey,

        I have a 10 year old daughter who has and continues to have similar symptoms since she was very young. I have always felt that something was just not right with her, but the doctors could never find anything. She is overly sensitive, has a hard time calming herself down when she has a meltdown, has gained quite a bit of weight over the last couple of years even with being extremely active and just seems tired and cranky most of the time.
        I would be extremely grateful if you could help me with my journey to get her off of all of the “bad” stuff and hopefull get her back to happy and healthy naturally.

    5. This is the easiest of the pledges for my family. As we too stopped eating anything artifical for my son. Turns out he was allergic to food colouring and has a sensitivty to many additives. With the removal of the ‘extras’ from his diet he changed for the better no need for any ‘drugs’. Still hard, when we go out to others homes people do not believe that additives can makes such a change in a person, however when people sneak food to him they quickly realize why our family is artifical free.

    6. Our son has improved behavior, concentration etc since we removed dyes from his diet. We know for certain if some has been consumed and now we see BHT causing him problems. It’s time to cut all junk out!!

  30. my biggest gripe when i started trying to avoid dyes and artificial sweeteners was trying to buy medication for my kids without these additives!!!! i try not to give them medication unless truly warranted anyway, but to find a pain reliever or cough medicine without aspartame or sucralose and especially without some sort of dye in it is impossible! medicine doesn’t taste good anyway, why try to oversweeten it or pretend that just because it’s pink it’s going to taste better??? not only that, but even to find a chewable multivitamin without aspartame is quite difficult…uuuggghhhh!!!! this is a challenge we are up for, 2 adults and 3 kids!