Food producer General Mills announced this week that it will phase out “artificial flavors and colors” from its cereals, which include Lucky Charms, Trix, Count Chocula, and many more. By 2017, the synthetic dyes and flavors that distinguish the company’s various iterations of grain-based sugar puffs from one another will be replaced with extracts from fruits, vegetables, and spices.
“People eat with their eyes,” General Mills president Jim Murphy said, speaking metaphorically, in the company’s sanctimony-flavored YouTube announcement (titled “A Big Commitment For Our Cereals”). “And so food has to look appealing, and colors give it an appealing look.” The move comes because, Murphy explains, “People don’t want colors with numbers in their food anymore.”
That is, things like yellow 5, blue 42, or red 7890. People also don’t want chemical-sounding words that they can’t pronounce. That draws upon journalist Michael Pollan’s dietary rule, which has crept to the front of many food-consumers’ minds since he proposed it in 2008: Don’t eat foods with ingredients that you can’t easily pronounce.
"We wanted to make sure there were still fun, vibrant colors that we are providing, and the fruity flavor that kids expect," General Mills cereal developer Kate Gallager told Good Morning America yesterday, speaking from the company’s Minneapolis food laboratory, revealing an array of radish, blueberry, and turmeric-based dyes that will be used to flavor the new iteration of Trix.
You know what else provides fruity flavor? Eating fruit. But General Mills is taking the opportunity to capitalize on changing consumer demand for “natural” products to rebrand its sugar puffs, depicting them in publicity photos next to bowls of carrots and strawberries, but also continuing to market directly to children with cartoon characters like Lucky the Leprechaun (née Sir Charms née L.C. Leprechaun), just with a new halo of wholesomeness and health for parents.
The move was predictably well received by parents across the Internet yesterday. Commenter Danielle-Brian Moore-Dickson wrote, “THANK YOU SO MUCH for the commitment to our children's health! Red dye is such a problem in our family, and this makes our life a lot easier.” Is it, though?
Many parents do share concerns over synthetic dyes. Last year a study found a correlation between consuming yellow 5 and symptoms of hyperactivity. In the ensuing Good Morning America segment, ABC’s chief health and medical editor and pediatrician Richard Besser said, “For most people, artificial food dye isn’t going to cause a problem. But for a small group of children, some of those with behavioral problems, some of [the dyes] are going to worsen behavior. And you have no way of knowing whether your child is going to be one of those.” Which is at once not overtly alarmist but also a clear invocation to concerned parents. He added the rule of thumb: “If it’s not a color you find in nature, that means it’s artificial.”
Of course, turmeric flavored sugar puffs are also not found in nature. And I never feel a hundred percent great about pronouncing turmeric, so. Maybe some people are satisfied with what they believe to be a slightly improved Lucky Charms, with incremental progress toward a more reasonable product from a massive corporation that is not going to change overnight. The cereals are still not ideal, but at least they’re free of those dyes.
Except that removing those dyes represents no tangible progress, and potentially the opposite. They are not proven to be detrimental; but eating pure-sugar meals is proven to dispose kids to obesity, diabetes, and hyperactivity. Sugar puffs are not “part of a complete breakfast” any more than Skittles or toenails. They are part of a complete breakfast in a completely inessential way.
The best case for consumers would be to have these products exist in a space apart from any facade of health. If Lucky Charms is to continue to exist, and it will, then it’s best understood only as a source of joy, occasional and unencumbered, not a healthy product. Muddying the waters with claims about natural-ness confuses the proposition and stands to increase consumption. General Mills knows that; that’s why it’s turned this into a publicity run. It’s still marshmallows for breakfast.