Nowadays, we’re finding out more and more about what’s in the foods we eat—and it’s not all good news. However, some companies are taking the initiative to replace synthetic additives that customers object to with more natural ones.

But what, exactly, does "natural" mean? That’s still a gray area.

“The FDA has not established a formal definition for the term ‘natural,’” a U.S. Food and Drug Administration spokesperson told Healthline. “We do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of ‘natural’ in food labeling. The FDA considers the term ‘natural’ to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.”

The European Union defines a "natural" flavor as one that exists in nature and is not synthetic. The process of obtaining the flavor also has to be natural, as in non-chemical extraction or fermentation.

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What's All the Buzz About?

The FDA has approved seven food dyes—Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 40, Red 3, Yellow 5, Yellow 6—that are known carcinogens, meaning that they can cause cancer in humans.

Recent studies also infer that there is a link between artificial food dyes and hyperactivity in children, while others say that some synthetic preservatives can trigger cancer in rodents.

With this kind of information spreading through the media, more people are insisting on healthier ingredients, flavors, preservatives, and other additives—and manufacturers are striving to meet that demand.

Melody M. Bomgardner, senior business editor at Chemical & Engineering News, recently penned an article on the topic. By 2013, almost a quarter of U.S. consumers reported that they read food labels to check for artificial colors and flavors, she wrote. That's 15 percent more than the year before. In Europe, the market for natural additives is soaring, actually overtaking the sale of synthetics.

In other words, artificial additives could be going the way of trans fats—largely phased out.

Jaclyn London, the senior clinical dietitian at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said that people put themselves at a greater risk for cardiovascular disease by eating trans fats, which are cheap for manufacturers to make but can easily be replaced by butter or oil.

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New, Natural Additions

Extracts from algae, rosemary, and monk fruit could soon replace food additives like Blue 1, BHT, and aspartame.

Many food manufacturers are looking to use food coloring that is derived from food itself, as well as new fermentation methods to make natural yellow, red, and purple dyes. Rosemary is being used as a preservative, and monk fruit is the latest natural sweetener. Many products already on the market contain Stevia and other natural sweeteners—and make sure to point out the alternative ingredients on their labels.

“When it comes to sweeteners, the best thing you can do is get your taste buds accustomed to lower levels. Monk fruit sweetener, in and of itself, isn't bad, but you don't want to keep your taste buds constantly stimulated by sweet-tasting foods,” said Andy Bellatti, a nutritionist based in Las Vegas.

London said that Subway is currently working to eliminate azodiacarbonamide, also known as ADA, from its sandwich bread. London said the chemical is also found in plastic products like shoe soles and yoga mats. The FDA has approved its use up to a certain limit, but a new study links an ADA byproduct to cancer risk and tumor development.

“Interestingly, while the U.S., Canada, and Asia have all recognized ADA as safe, the chemical is banned from use in food in Australia and Europe,” London said. She believes the health effects are similar to those of artificial sweeteners—consumption has not been proven to directly affect disease risk, but the potential long-term effects have yet to be studied.

Alternatives for green and blue food coloring are harder to come by, but Bomgardner says that scientists are searching for sources. Last August, the FDA approved M&M-maker Mars’ use of spirulina extract from algae as a blue color additive for the candy.

Purple sweet potatoes, black carrots, and purple carrots have become sources of a new generation of natural food dyes that are replacing traditional synthetic colors and colors that come from insects. Though their pigments are difficult to extract, purple sweet potato anthocyanins are also growing in popularity for food and beverage coloring, said Stephen T. Talcott, Ph.D., of Texas A&M University.

Bellatti notes that removing potentially harmful additives is important, but it’s equally vital to look at the big picture.

“M&Ms made with food-based dyes are still high in sugar and should be an occasional treat at best. Similarly, fast food made with fewer artificial additives is still highly processed and cooked in unhealthy oils,” he said.

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