When Chipotle announced earlier this month that its menu is now free of genetically modified foods, scientists were quick to point out that there is no evidence that so-called GMOs are harmful to health. According to some, the move made Chipotle seem healthier but with no real benefit to Chipotle’s customers.
Now, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, both owned by Yum Brands, are trying a similar tactic to bolster their reputations. While they are not addressing GMOs, the two fast food chains said they will begin removing artificial flavors and colors from their menus. The problem, of course, is that their foods are still loaded with salt and sugar. And the changes will not affect the fountain drinks (which often contain many artificial colors) or co-branded snacks (like Doritos) the chains serve in their restaurants.
John Coupland, a professor of food science at Penn State University, tells Fast Company that there is little to suggest that artificial flavors are dangerous, and while one small study has found a link between artificial colors and behavior changes in some children, the evidence has not been enough to convince regulators in the U.S. or the European Union to ban the ingredients. Coupland says that the current popular focus on “natural” ingredients can be a distraction from the real problems with fast food.
“We’re seeing a changing culture in the way that people look at food,” Coupland says. “As a scientist I worry about, what does ‘natural’ actually mean? It’s a vague concept to base decisions on. Removing some ingredients is a way to make food appear more natural without really underlining what is actually a problem.”
Fast food chains that truly want to improve their impact on public health should focus instead on the way they market their foods–cut the free large sodas and two-for-one deals, for example–and reduce sodium, sugar, and portion sizes, Coupland argues.
“If Pizza Hut had come along and said, ‘We’re going to reduce the sizes of all our pizzas without reducing the price, and we are going to give free salads to make up for it,’ that would be a good move for public health,” Coupland says. “But branding wise, that would be a hard thing to do, because people are coming for pizza, not salad.”
Pizza Hut says it will remove artificial flavors and colors by the end of July, with Taco Bell following suit by the end of 2015.
See Fast Company’s own Mark Wilson visit Taco Bell’s test kitchen and design his own taco: Los Todos.