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Real food has real momentum these days.  Recently, Panera announced a “no no” list of artificial preservatives, colorings, sweeteners and flavors it would remove from its foods by the end of 2016.  Subway, with more outlets than even McDonald’s, will follow a similar timetable for replacing artificial colors, flavors and preservatives with spices and other natural substitutes. Taco Bell soon chimed in, saying that, by the end of 2015, it would remove colorings like Yellow No. 6 and Blue No. 1, and substitute actual black pepper (imagine that!) for black pepper flavoring in its beef. Pizza Hut (like Taco Bell, part of YUM! Brands) has also committed to removing artificial colors and flavors from its pizzas but much sooner – by July 2015.

On the retail front, Target, one of the top 10 grocers in the U.S., announced on May 18 that the chain will give extra attention and promotion to “wellness” foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. While Target is not eliminating foods like canned soup and sugary breakfast cereals, they’ll be de-emphasized in store flyers and shelf locations.

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In a 2015 national consumer survey conducted by the Natural Marketing Institute for Sensient Food Colors, 51% of shoppers said that taking artificial colors out of “kid-centric” foods was especially important to them. No surprise, then, that Kraft Macaroni & Cheese will now be made without Yellow #5 and #6.

As these companies were reformulating their foods, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published the results of a study showing that two popular food additives that are chemically similar to detergents may make the gut’s mucus barrier “leaky” and alter important gut microbes that can determine our health. The NIH reported that “mice fed these emulsifiers for 12 weeks developed low-grade intestinal inflammation and metabolic syndrome – a group of conditions that increase the risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke” and that “these results suggest that modern additions to the food supply can interact with gut microbiota to influence inflammation, metabolism, and weight.”

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While we also prefer foods without artificial-and-unpronounceable this, that, and the other, we’ve noticed that “real food” means different things to different people. Sometimes what you leave in is as important (or more so!) than what you take out, so we’re urging these five companies – and others following the same road – to put whole grains high on their priority list. Will that Kraft Macaroni & Cheese be made with whole grain pasta? Will Pizza Hut offer a whole grain crust option? (Kudos to Subway – they already offer a whole grain roll option, and tell us that a large percentage of customers order it.)

Adding whole grains can have beneficial effects. Take inflammation, like that mentioned in the NIH mouse study above. Randomized controlled human studies like this one in Nebraska and this one in Iran, show that eating whole grains lowers inflammation markers – an important fact since inflammation is increasingly linked with a wide range of diseases.

Just as a reminder, when foods are made with refined wheat instead of whole wheat, the wheat is missing half to two-thirds of at least 17 key nutrients. Even when the flour has been “enriched” only five of those nutrients have been restored, and in amounts different from their original proportions. (You can download our chart comparing whole wheat flour to refined wheat and enriched wheat flour here.) Other grains besides wheat suffer similar losses when they are refined by having their bran and germ removed.

We applaud the increased attention being paid to the quality of food and we’ll be watching all these brands in the coming months, to see where whole grains fit into their plans. Real food isn’t just about removing traces of chemicals – it’s about honoring the full delight of nature’s bounty. You wouldn’t buy an apple or a carrot with half its nutrients removed, so why do that when you buy grain foods?

- Cynthia


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