Pillsbury’s recent decision to change its cookie dough recipe sparked blowback from some customers. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Columnist, Food

What happens when you take the artificial colors, flavors and preservatives out of Pillsbury slice-and-bake chocolate chip cookies?

You have a revolt on your hands, that's what. From the moderate, "definitely not a huge fan of the new recipe" to the immoderate, "Horrible ugghhhh I'm sooooooo disappointed," the reviews on Pillsbury's website gave new meaning to "cookie pan."

Read through them, though, and you’ll find another thread. Consumers weren’t objecting just to flavor (or texture, or how the cookies baked up, or the number of chocolate chips); they were objecting to the idea that Pillsbury wanted to make the cookies more healthful.

"People do NOT bake Pillsbury cookies because they're 'natural' or 'healthy' or 'good for us' or environmentally sound or any of the other nonsense that's being shoved down our throats in the name of . . . what? . . . 'gastronomical correctness?' " said commenter LadyMidnight. It was an attitude that ran through many of the comments, summed up succinctly by Lfsuave: "If I wanted a healthy snack I would eat spinach."

I asked Pillsbury about the cookies. Tammy Swanson, of General Mills’ public relations department, sent me the company’s statement on the reformulation, which said the decision to “remove artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, and high fructose corn syrup” was something “many consumers were asking for.” I also asked about sales, to no avail. “There is nothing of note to share with you,” Swanson said.

In reformulating the cookie dough recipe, Pillsbury was on trend. "Clean eating" is the new black, the new kale, the new, new thing. A recent survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC), an industry group that researches buying habits, found that 61 percent of consumers say recognizing ingredients on packaged foods is important to their purchase decision. Born of fear of things artificial, that impulse has consumers clamoring for foods that fit that description, and the clamor is driving food companies, restaurants and supermarkets to reformulate products to suit — all the while protecting that segment of their customer base that hates the idea.

The key question is whether those reformulated foods are really any better for you. Let’s cut to the chase: In the main, they are not.

That doesn’t mean all additives are guaranteed to be safe or that the evaluation process is as robust and transparent as it should be. It just means that focusing on “naturalness” is a lousy way to reduce risk, because plenty of artificial ingredients are harmless, and plenty of natural ones aren’t.

A report issued earlier this year by the Center for Science in the Public Interest identifies some artificial ingredients that pose risks (among them some artificial colors and preservatives), and report author Lisa Lefferts told me, "We're glad to see companies get rid of some additives that have a questionable safety record." But the report concludes that most additives are safe, and "the biggest risks are from the foods themselves, not the additives," according to Lefferts, who lists salt, sugar, saturated fat and a lack of fiber and nutrients as larger problems.

Let's be clear: People disagree about additives. It's easy to find experts who think they're either more or less dangerous than CSPI says. But in my two decades of reporting on nutrition, I have found a lot of support for the idea that, on the list of food-related risks, additives rank pretty low.

Okay, so clean labels may not be doing any good. But are they doing harm?

They very well might be. Several things happen as a result of clean labels, and none are any good.

First is the danger that the clean versions of foods that aren't any more healthful than their originals are nevertheless viewed as better for you. There's a large body of research on what consumers do with foods that have a health halo: They eat more of them. "There is a concern that consumers will mistake a 'clean' label for 'healthful' and consume foods that are 'clean' but not healthful," Lefferts says.

Remember Snackwells? If consumers perceive Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner as better for their children when it's colored with turmeric and consumption inches up, that's not a public health win.

But even if they don’t lead to more processed food in our diet, the rush to clean up labels hurts us because it’s a big, hairy distraction. It’s a distraction for eaters, who feel as though they can check the box “doing something about my diet” and move on to the next thing, but it’s an even bigger distraction for the companies doing the reformulating.

There's widespread agreement in the public health community that the near-ubiquitous availability of cheap, calorie-dense, nutrition-challenged, irresistibly delicious food plays a significant role in our epidemic of obesity and its attendant diseases. Some of the companies that make those foods are attempting to step up and introduce products that are at least marginally more healthful, but creating products that are genuinely better for us, that we like just as much and have to pay no more for is a very tough job. Remember Satisfries? Probably not, because Burger King's 2013 version of french fries with fewer calories and less fat was soon replaced by Chicken Fries, unabashedly breaded and deep-fried chicken strips that come with a variety of dipping sauces.

The push for clean labels leaves food purveyors caught between two constituencies: The “if I wanted a healthy snack I would eat spinach” contingent is pushing for the foods they know and love, artificial flavors be damned, and the clean eaters are looking for foods that have been greenwashed of the artificial flavors but retain all the sugar, fat and salt that made them appealing in the first place. The IFIC survey on buying habits asked consumers whether they would choose a familiar product that had artificial ingredients or a version without them that didn’t taste as good, and responses were split almost 50/50.

Neither of those options, and neither of their constituencies, is improving the situation, and every R&D dollar these companies spend catering to either of them is a dollar they are not spending on meaningful change. I wonder how much money PepsiCo has allocated toward the search for a substitute for glycerin, a perfectly safe product. Right now, nobody is even objecting to glycerin. But they might, and the company has to be ready.

But there is an important lesson in all this: We, the eaters, have power. Enough people say “clean labels!” and we get clean labels. It’s an idea that undermines the narrative that we are victims of a food supply foisted upon us. Collectively, we can change things.

Ultimately, we will get the food supply we demand. Too bad we are squandering that power by demanding clean labels.