The other day I was making lunch and went to grab a handful of Garden Veggie Straws. I noticed the packaging had “No Artificial Flavors, Colors or Preservatives” written (well printed) on the front and it started my brain muscle churning. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t thought about the difference between “artificial” and “natural” flavorings before but for some reason I decided to look into the issue a bit.
The ingredients of said veggie straws are as follows: veggie straws (potato flour, potato starch, corn starch, tomato paste, spinach powder, salt, sugar, beetroot powder [color], turmeric), canola oil and/or safeflower oil and/or sunflower oil, sea salt.
Ok, so the above ingredients can all be relatively easily pronounced. I’ve found that’s generally a good way to know if what you are eating is either natural or artificial. Now, 38 straws contain 130 calories whereas 7 tortilla chips contain 140 calories (I literally just grabbed the nearest bag of chips so these numbers may vary). However, when comparing the nutrition facts the two products are very similar in numbers. Both have 7 grams of fat or 11% of the recommended daily value. The corn chips contain 80mg (3% r.d.v.) of sodium while the veggie straws contain 250mg(10% r.d.v.) One serving of corn chips has two grams of protein while while the veggie straws contain less than one gram of protein.
And yet, the corn chips mention nothing about lacking artificial colors, flavors, etc., yet neither of the products contain artificial product. And thus, the rabbit hole of artificial vs natural begins to go deeper.
As I began researching artificial versus natural I noticed a trend. Scientific oriented sites and blogs focused on the argument that artificial flavors and colors were the same on a molecular level. In other words, whether the color or flavor was derived from nature or created in a lab, the chemical structure of the two were the same and therefore there wasn’t a difference between the two. These scientific sites also tended to mention how artificial flavors were more highly regulated than natural.
On the other side of the coin, sites that were natural, organic, or vegan based noted that the process for creating these flavors made a difference in how the body metabolized the chemicals, one even noting that light refracted differently between the natural and artificial versions. I am now starting to realize that discovering the truth behind the natural vs artificial argument may be a more time consuming process than I first envisioned.
I believe that one of the problems with our society’s general ignorance of food consumption is not only how it is taught, but when it is taught. When I was in school we had health classes and in these classes were were given a general education about… well, health. Food and nutrition were covered but one must wonder how teaching a child about what they should and shouldn’t be eating has any real effect. They must either convince their parents to purchase healthier food, change their family’s eating habits, or find ways to acquire proper nutrition on their own. For a child these tasks can be quite difficult.
The next opportunity to learn about health and nutrition might come from a required college class if at all. Again, considering the limited funds available to a college student, eating healthy (which is generally more expensive) seems to move down the list of importance especially coupled with the peer pressure based social conventions associated with a college life style. Again, we miss our chances to change the lifestyles of millions of young adults.
By the time a young adult is preparing to start their career and perhaps even a family, the habits of consuming artificial foods is ingrained into both their psyche and physiology. So now, with their younger years behind them is it any wonder why so few Americans are aware or even concerned with the differences between artificial and natural? And if they are concerned, is there any definitive answer available?
Instead of being clearer on the subject, I know find myself more confused than ever. As a scientist I find myself siding with the empirical data provided by the science oriented sources and believing that an artificial flavor is no different than a natural flavor (chemically that is). Yet, as someone who recognizes that food is also a business and that advertising and marketing utilize manipulation to increase sales for said business I must also wonder about the validity of these studies (i.e. “Nine out of ten doctors recommend Charcoal Brand of cigarettes”).
I think that this is not the end of my study of “artificial vs natural” but its beginning. As I learn more I will report my findings. Perhaps somewhere in the midst of the Information Superhighway is a road to a balanced diet that is both artificially nutritious and naturally affordable.