During the past 50 years, artificial food color consumption has increased 500% in the American diet. It’s not just fruit flavored cereal and candy that includes these additives, but seemingly innocent items such as pancake syrup, yogurt, oatmeal, salad dresings, pickles, and even salmon. These, and many many more foods, may contain one or more artificial colors and oth
er chemicals. Although much of the research has come back as inconclusive, historically, many colors that were once thought of as safe have shown links to some cancers and childhood behavioral problems like hyperactivity. The European Parliament has gone as far as placing warning labels on any UK produced foods containing one of six different artificial food color additives. Also, the UK’s equivalent of our FDA has imposed a voluntary ban on artificial colors. This is part of the reason as to why McDonald’s fries have 4 ingredients in Britain and 19 ingredients stateside. The question is: how did we get here and what options do we have?
Food color additives have a long and complex history from using “natural” colors derived from tar that had the potential to be poisonous in the 1800’s and earlier, to making the switch to dozens of artificial colors in the early 1900’s. When the Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906, there were around 80 dyes being used in food production. By 1938, 65 of those dyes were deemed to be unsafe. Currently, there are 7 primary artificial colors that are currently being used in food production. Even though the FDA says these are GRAS (their term: generally regarded as safe), what they deem safe is still a little hazy. One example: the FDA banned red no. 3 from use in cosmetics and other skin applications back in 1990 but continues to approve it for use in food to this day.
The reason for this boils down to two issues: production and profits. How attractive would a maraschino cherry on top of a sundae be if it was grayish-brown in color (which it would be)? How crisp would a pickle look if it was some shade of beige? Businesses look to artificial colors as a way to replace color lost in processing, create the illusion that food is more nutritious that it really is, and to make it prettier in order to sell better. These can range from the largest companies and trickle down to even the smallest neighborhood shops.
Restaurants make hundreds of decisions as to what products they will serve their guests. These decisions are often based on two factors: cost and convenience. It can be tempting when a sales rep says, “Buy this processed product; it will be cheaper and a lot easier for your staff.” What they gain in convenience is usually lost in serving their customer a less healthy, clean, allergy friendly menu item. Processing an item for consumption at a later date oftentimes means adding colors, flavors, or preservatives to the product. This usually results in companies being forced to add allergens or other chemicals to a processed product that then end up being “enjoyed” by the consumer.
Noble Restaurant believes in doing it differently. We go to great lengths to make sure none of the foods we serve contain any artificial colors. This is one of the reasons we adhere to certain practices like serving only wild-caught seafood and making most of our food from scratch in our own kitchen. Although doing this extra work is sometimes more expensive and almost always less convenient, we believe it is the best way to know what we are serving our customers. Being able to serve our customers allergy-friendly, carefully sourced, clean food is crucial to how we make decisions in regards to the food we serve. We are still a business and cost/convenience must play a key role in our decisions but we feel that business can be about more than just profits.
Maybe it’s all a farce. Maybe in 5, 10, or 50 years we will still be using artificial colors and it will be fine. Even if that is the case, Noble will continue to stand by what we believe is right, because what we eat matters.