Taco Bell and Pizza Hut shook the fast-food world Tuesday when the chains announced they’ll be nixing artificial ingredients in their menu items by the end of 2015. Taco Bell is saying sayonara to artificial flavors, artificial colors, high fructose corn syrup and palm oil in their food. (Artificial preservatives, too, will be removed “where possible” by 2017.) Pizza Hut has an even quicker timeline, saying it’ll phase out artificial colors and preservatives by the end of July.
But will these fast-food tweaks really make a difference for your health? We asked experts what they thought about the particular ingredients being nixed to gauge whether or not these swaps will, indeed, make the food more healthy.
“I think that this general trend is a good thing,” says Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. “But what the public, I think, has failed to recognize is that the single greatest power over the food supply has been food demand. If we change what we’re willing to buy, then the supply side will change what they’re selling.”
Here’s what else experts say about it.
1. Artificial flavors
The experts agree: taking out artificial ingredients is a positive move. “The kinds of things they are taking out are cosmetics—additives that make processed foods taste or stick together better,” says Marion Nestle, professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. “They are not necessary. Whether they are harmful at quantities typically consumed is debatable, but why not get rid of them?”
“It’s very much a political ploy on the part of the fast food industry to make their food look like somehow it’s real food, but it’s still not real food,” says Robert Lustig, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of Fat Chance. The problems with many processed foods, he says, are a matter of too little—fiber, micronutrients, omega-3 fatty acids—and too much—trans fats, branched-chain amino acids, salt, emulsifiers and sugar.
Selling real food is within the power of fast food establishments, Lustig says. “But they can’t sell it as long as we subsidize corn, wheat, soy and sugar”—the cheap ingredients that make up the bulk of processed food, Lustig says. Until then, he says, real food doesn’t have a fighting chance—and broccoli calories will continue to be more expensive than burger calories.
2. Artificial colors
“It’s good that they’re trying to get rid of food additives, especially artificial colors, because we never needed them,” says Lustig. While some artificial colors have been shown to cause cancer in animals, none have been proven to cause cancer in humans. Still, some experts caution against eating or drinking foods that contain them due to insufficient knowledge about their safety or worries about them triggering allergic reactions. (See this summary by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.)
Some scientists have raised concerns about the safety of some artificial colors, with a recent paper saying: “It is recommended that regulatory authorities require better and independent toxicity testing, exercise greater caution regarding continued approval of these dyes, and in the future approve only well-tested, safe dyes.”
3. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
“HFCS has earned a very bad reputation within the general community,” says Lustig. “People see it and go, ‘Oh, that’s the devil.'” But Lustig thinks sugar is the real problem, regardless of whether it comes from—and since food companies aren’t likely to drop HFCS without replacing it with something sweet, we may see sugar appear more often on ingredient lists. “What they ought to be doing is getting rid of HFCS in exchange for nothing,” Lustig says. “If it’s not changing what you’re consuming, what’s the difference?”
4. Palm oil
Fast-food companies use huge amounts of palm oil, which can contribute to vast deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and harsh land-clearing techniques.”I’m really glad to see this in the mix,” says David Katz. The announcement follows this year’s release of new dietary guidelines, which addressed sustainability for the first time. Big food companies—some of the major clients for palm oil—are the most crucial people to prioritize this, Katz says. “Once you know that sustainability matters because you can see things that are running out, you’re obligated to address it, even if you’ve never addressed it before.” (The two restaurants, by the way, aren’t the first; last year, Dunkin Donuts committed to sourcing 100% sustainable palm oil by 2016.)
5. Artificial preservatives
It’s hard to gauge improvement without knowing what’s replacing artificial preservatives, says Katz. “We have to be very careful that this isn’t just minor tweaking at the margins: maybe they’re taking out food additives but still want the shelf life to be the same, so they’ll put in more salt,” he says. “My hope is that we’ve reached the point where you can’t get away with that anymore.”