These days, consumers like you don't blindly consume; we all care more than ever about what's in the food we eat. We want simpler, cleaner ingredients and less of the added stuff. The big news: Plenty of food manufacturers and restaurant chains agree. "People are demanding more natural choices, and food companies are giving them to us," says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. "It's amazing how much this trend has taken off. It seems that every week, another announcement is made."
That's incredibly gratifying, considering that it takes a lot for big corporations to overhaul iconic food products like the classic blue-box Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, or the Butterfinger bar that's been making chocolate lovers giddy since the 1920s. This month, we're saying thanks to the companies leading the way, shaking up their recipes to give us all a bit less to worry about. You don't have to hunt their products down in health food stores or go to a pricey farm-to-table restaurant in Organicville. They're in the stores and eateries you frequent the most. Take a look, and spread the word. That's how a few changes turn into a revolution.
Less Artificial, More Real
Even though artificial food colorings are approved by the FDA, some scientists raise concerns about their negative effect on our health. So isn't it nice to know that the hue of a favorite food comes from nature? A few companies that are dropping dyes and other better-without-them ingredients:
Kraft is replacing artificial food coloring in its Macaroni & Cheese with all-natural annatto, paprika, and turmeric, a spice that's really good for you. The new mac will be on shelves in January; Kraft has already made the swap in a version targeted to children and reduced its sodium and saturated fat content, too. Kids didn't bat an eyelash — they're still asking for seconds.
Unilever's I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! makeover began when they phased out partially hydrogenated oils, eliminating bad-for-you trans fats. Since then, the number of ingredients has been reduced from 15 to 10; the list is a whole lot simpler and easier to pronounce. The latest change: They swapped in vinegar for artificial preservatives.
Taco Bell is nixing the artificial colors and flavors used in many of its menu items such as nacho cheese and red tortilla strips. The changes will all be rolled out by the end of the year.
Pizza Hut has stripped all artificial flavors and colors from its pizzas. The veggie toppings are getting more real, too. One example: The dye that made the banana peppers look so yellow is being replaced by healthy turmeric.
Panera Bread recently announced what it's calling "The No No List," a rundown of more than 150 ingredients, including artificial preservatives and faux flavors and colors, that will be removed from its menu items by the end of 2016.
Nestlé has started using flavor boosters and colorings from natural sources instead of artificial ones. For example, the inside of a Butterfinger is still orange—only the color comes from the seeds of an achiote tree.
Fewer Antibiotics in Meat and Poultry
Experts have warned us about overuse of antibiotics in food production for a long time. One problem with giving animals antibiotics, sometimes just to help them grow faster: Bacteria can become resistant to them— and when that happens, the ones humans need when we're sick might not work as well. So high fives to these companies:
Costco announced that it plans to stop selling meat from animals that have been given the types of antibiotics that are also used to fight human infections.
Perdue says that 96% of its chicken flock never receive an antibiotic that is used in human medicine.
Tyson plans to completely eliminate human antibiotics from its chicken production by 2017.
McDonald's is phasing out using chickens that were given antibiotics important to human medicine, a change that will happen over the next two years. It joins a slew of other chain restaurants that have cut back on antibiotics, like Carl's Jr., Panera Bread, and Pret A Manger. Special props to Chipotle — they made the decision to give antibiotics the boot more than 10 years ago.
Foods Are Less of a Salt Lick
Salt is controversial: While many experts maintain that it can harm our health, some studies question the conventional wisdom that most people should cut back. Until we know for sure, it helps to have more control over how much we pour into our bodies. A few of the companies making this possible:
Campbell Soup Company says 72% of its products, including soups, now meet the FDA's sodium standards for healthy foods. Next up: They're ditching artificial colors and flavors from most offerings.
Walmart is reducing sodium in its private-label products by 25%, and extra kudos: The chain has also been working with other suppliers to scale down salt by early 2016.
General Mills slashed the sodium in many of its foods. Chex Mix got a 40% salt reduction; frozen pizza, 25%.
Subway has cut back on the sodium content of a number of those yummy items in its topper bar, making some sammies 28% less salty overall.
3 Great Updates on Sugar
1. Sweet drinks are off kids menus. There's strong evidence that limiting sugary beverages can help keep children slimmer. Considering that one-third of American kids are overweight or obese, we're congratulating Dairy Queen, Burger King, Wendy's, and McDonald's for taking sodas off the kiddie menu.
2. It's easier to spot added sugar. The average American consumes more than three times the recommended amount of added sugar every day; cutting back will do good things for our waistlines as well as our overall health. We're especially impressed when a candy company is in favor of more transparency in sugar labeling, supporting a movement to take any tricks out of our treats. Mars, the company that makes popular sweets including M&M's, Snickers, and Twix, gave a thumbs-up to an FDA proposal asking for "added sugars" to be noted on nutrition labels. This would distinguish the sweeteners from the naturally occurring sugars in foods like fruit and milk. The company even came out in support of the World Health Organization's recommendation to limit sugar intake to no more than 10% of total daily calories.
3. A favorite snack is now less sweet — but still delicious. Yoplait slashed the sugar content in its yogurt by 25%. It took three years and more than 70 employees to reformulate the recipes so they're just as tasty for even a hard-to-satisfy sweet tooth.
This story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.