Sneak Peak: The Dirty Truth Behind Processed Food

By: Rebekah Sack

We love sneak peaks, so here’s an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Healthy Cooking & Nutrition for College Students: How Not to Gain the Freshman 15. Available for pre-order now.

The main difference between processed and natural food is the stuff added in. Processed food is usually found in some kind of packaging, which means it needs to be preserved so that it doesn’t go bad. You rarely see processed food in a fridge.

Processed food has an ingredient list full of words you may not recognize or understand. There are lots of added sugars in there hiding behind scientific terms.

There are artificial colors added to your food to make it more pleasing to look at, which convinces you to buy it. There are also artificial flavors added, which means that “banana” muffin mix that’s sitting on the shelf isn’t made with actual bananas. Let’s take an in-depth look at artificial colors and flavorings.

Artificial colors

Food dyes are what make that packaged food look so enticing. The colors draw you in, and they make your mouth water. However, the problems that these dyes (such as Red 40 and Yellow 5) cause have led other countries (such as the European Union and the British government) to ban them.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, artificial colors in our food can cause the following reactions:

  • Hyperactivity in children
  • Behavioral problems
  • Allergic reactions
  • Cancer

The fact that these chemicals, which only serve the purpose of making food look good, have such horrible effects on our bodies is astounding. More importantly, natural ingredients can replace these chemicals.

Since food dyes are outlawed in Britian, Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain bars are made with natural colorings, which include beetroot, Annatto, and Paprika extra to get that red color in the filling. However, in the U.S., food dyes are FDA-approved, so our Nutri-Grain bars contain Red 40, Yellow 6, and Blue 1.


So, why is the FDA not banning food dye? Well, the main reason is because they’re blaming the individual for being sensitive. Some people are allergic to food dyes, while others aren’t. While researchers still can’t pinpoint the exact reason why, there’s convincing research that indicates it’s in our genes. It’s similar to why some people experience a bad reaction to a certain drug, while others don’t.

The FDA Center for Science in the Public Interest
“Children experience a ‘unique intolerance’ to food dyes.” “Food dyes can be toxic to children’s developing bodies.”
“We need to do additional testing to prove your claims.” “You haven’t required or commissioned any new tests since 2011.”
“There is an accepted daily intake (ADI) to ensure safety.” “Dyes have provoked behavioral symptoms far below that ADI.”
“We’ve done tests to come up with the ADI safety system.” “Those tests have not measured any neurobehavioral outcomes.”

Long story short: Food dyes can cause negative damages and reactions, and the FDA hasn’t done proper testing to back-up these findings. Some individuals are more sensitive to food dyes than others. That’s why it isn’t banned in the U.S.

Artificial flavors

If you’re wondering how a flavor can be artificial, it’s a very intricate, chemical process. Here’s how it works.

When we eat something, it isn’t just our taste buds that are making it taste a certain way. Our sense of smell plays a huge role. We only have four taste sensations: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Our nose, on the other hand, can interpret thousands of different smells.

What this means is that anything we eat has an extremely long and complex set of chemicals that work together to produce the final experience. However, there are a few foods, particularly fruits, that have some chemical sets that stick out as more dominant — these chemical sets are what carry most of the flavor to us. According to HowStuffWorks, these dominant chemical sets are called esters.

If you can vaguely remember some stuff from biology or chemistry, this chemical component might make some sense to you: the ester called Octyl Acetate, which is CH3COOC5H11, is the dominant chemical component in orange flavoring.


So, once chemists can figure out which chemical sets are the dominant ones, they can manufacture that in a lab by mimicking the chemical components of the real thing. Then, they just inject that ester in your food, and violà, you have orange-flavored gum or banana-flavored muffins.

Now, artificial flavorings are safe to consume, and they don’t differ that much from natural flavoring, because the chemical compounds are mimicked. However, here’s the problem with them.

This is the part where everything circles back around to money. Since artificial flavorings are made in a lab, scientists can tinker with it in order to maximize the amount of money they’ll make. Here’s how they do it:

  • The taste can be increased so that the flavor is more potent than natural foods. In other words, you begin to crave the bold “strawberry” flavor, because it tastes stronger than the real strawberries you find in the fridge.
  • They can make the taste go away faster, causing you to purchase more of it. In a 2011 interview with Morley Safer of 60 Minutes, two flavor scientists explained that their main goal in life is to make food addictive by causing a burst of intense flavor when you first bite down, and a finish that doesn’t linger so that you buy more.
  • They make an old product taste new. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), when orange juice is pasteurized, some of the orange flavorings start to go away. In order to make you think you’re drinking fresh orange juice, flavor scientists insert some of those orange esters into the juice. This makes you think you’re drinking fresh orange juice, when in reality, it might be kind of old.

These startling facts about artificially flavored foods have hit the media by storm, being published on platforms like Mashable as well as in hit books, such as “The Dorito Effect” by Mark Schatzker. The simple fact is this: people are starting to get used to the amped up flavorings in processed foods, so when they start to taste the real foods (the ones that come from nature) their taste buds think they’re dull.

Do you remember at the beginning of the book where I made this huge claim that it’s possible to change your taste buds? That’s exactly what Mark Schatzker did. He spent about a year buying only the best, freshest ingredients that he could. He stayed away from artificial ingredients altogether, and he says that his palate has changed drastically. For example, he no longer puts sugar in his coffee, because he feels like the sweetness gets in the way (sound familiar?).

He explains, “Americans now use 600 million pounds of flavorings every year. We have made bland, high calorie food taste thrillingly delicious. And we can’t stop eating it. And to make matters worse, whole foods, like tomatoes, chickens and cucumbers, are getting blander and blander. In short, everything that’s gone wrong with food and our eating habits can be understood through flavor.”

Long story short: while artificial flavors might not necessarily be bad for you, they’re being used to make you prefer them over natural food, to addict you to processed food, and to trick you into thinking old products are new.

The next time you get that long lasting craving for those barbecue potato chips, consider where that irresistible craving is coming from.


Lefferts, Lisa Y. “Seeing Red: Time for Action on Food Dyes.” Ed. Michael F. Jacobson and Laura MacCleery. Center for Science in the Public Interest (2016). Web. 4 Apr. 2016.

“How Do Artificial Flavors Work?” HowStuffWorks. 31 May 2000. Web. 4 Apr. 2016.

Andrews, David. “Natural vs. Artificial Flavors.” EWG’s Food Scores. Environmental Working Group. Web. 4 Apr. 2016.

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