09/29/2015 04:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Axing Additives: A Good Start

Yukchong Kwan via Getty Images

Something interesting is happening in the food industry. Panera, Subway, and Taco Bell have all promised to get rid of artificial ingredients including colorings and flavorings from some or all of their foods. Nestlé (at least for its few chocolate candies) and Kraft (for its mac and cheese) have said the same.

I suppose the seeds for that development were planted 50 or 60 years ago, when companies began using a cornucopia of synthetic chemicals to color, flavor, preserve, and texturize their foods. Hello Cheez Whiz, Taco Flavored Doritos, and Trix cereal.

The labels of some foods have so many chemical names that you need a dictionary to decipher them -- that is, after you find a magnifying glass to see the squished together fine print.


What's in Lean Cuisine's Mushroom Mezzaluna Ravioli? Good luck! (Label shown actual size.)

But lately, people have begun to ridicule additive-packed foods, especially online. And some companies have discovered that dropping additives gives them something to brag about.

I'm delighted to see food companies get rid of the likes of polysorbate 80, disodium inosinate, and polyglycerol polyricinoleate (PGPR), which are just chemical props for packaged foods that are typically high in salt or sugar. And I'm all in favor of eliminating additives, like aspartame and food dyes, that pose a bona fide health risk.

But in the rush to purify, companies needn't jettison compounds that are safe and useful.

Why, for example, does Panera need to get rid of calcium propionate, which retards mold growth and adds some calcium to baked goods? Or why banish sodium erythorbate, which is perfectly innocuous and inhibits the formation of cancer-causing nitrosamines? And replacing high-fructose corn syrup with sugar -- even if it's organic or non-GMO -- won't improve anyone's health.

Moreover, some restaurants that boast about eliminating dyes and artificial sweeteners from their foods forget to mention that their soft drinks will still contain those additives (often at higher levels than other foods).

That said, I applaud companies for moving to eliminate unnecessary or potentially harmful additives. Next up: do something about the sky-high calories and sodium in many of their foods.

Pizza Hut's foods may soon have no artificial flavors, but its Meat Lover's Personal Pan Pizza will still pack 860 calories, 18 grams of saturated fat, and 2,150 mg of sodium. And Taco Bell's nacho cheese sauce may soon be free of Yellow 6 dye, but the chain's XXL Grilled Stufft Beef Burrito will still harbor 860 calories, 14 grams of sat fat, and 2,200 mg of sodium.

Getting rid of additives that are worthless -- or worse -- is great. Now how about giving consumers' waistlines and hearts a little TLC?