What ‘No Artificial Ingredients’ Really Means

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Photo: Cathy Yeulet

General Mills announced that it will be the first major cereal-maker to ditch artificial colors and flavors from the 40 percent of its products that still have them. It's going to sub in fruit- and vegetable-juice concentrates in Trix, Cocoa Puffs, and Reese's Puffs, and hopes to have reformulated versions of 90 percent of its cereals on shelves by the end of 2016. The company joins fast- and packaged-food brands like Panera, Subway, Taco Bell, Nestlé, and Kraft, in what Grub Street deemed "the great artificial-ingredient purge of 2015." (Chipotle's ban on genetically modified ingredients notwithstanding).

While some groups suggest that dyes like yellow 6 and red 40 are carcinogenic, General Mills says the changes are not in response to health concerns, but rather consumers' increasing interest in ingredients. Jim Murphy, president of the company's cereal division, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the move would help its business at a time when the cereal industry has seen sales shrink by 5 percent over the last five years. Industry analysts say that while older generations were concerned with nutritional stats like calories and fat, younger people care more about qualities like "local," ''organic," and "natural." And it seems that large food companies are doing the bare minimum to keep buyers around. To wit, the Washington Post reports that there will be “minimal to no changes in nutrition" in the General Mills cereals.

Announcements like these are intended to make the items in question appear healthier and more wholesome (and pad sales) but make no mistake: Processed foods made without artificial ingredients are still processed foods. Many of the General Mills cereals affected list sugar as the second ingredient and have nine to ten grams of sugar per serving. Bottom line: Eat "natural" Cocoa Puffs or Lucky Charms because you like them, not because you think they're now magically better for you.