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The Official Whole Foods Market® Blog

Our Quality Standards: No Artificial Colors or Flavors

We don’t sell just anything. Really. Everything in our stores has to meet our quality standards, or we won’t carry it.

In this series we’re giving you the inside scoop on our process, and some of our most fundamental standards – no artificial preservatives, no hydrogenated fats, no artificial sweeteners, and no artificial flavors or colors – and why what you find in our stores is different than anywhere else.

When assessing food ingredients, our Quality Standards team always asks: Is it necessary? For artificial colors and flavors, the answer is easy: NOPE. There are plenty of good options without them.

Difference between Artificial and Natural Colors

Artificial colors are chemically synthesized in a lab while natural colors are pigments extracted from plants, minerals or other naturally occurring material. Natural colors are listed on a food ingredient label with the name of the source and the fact that it’s used for color, like: “beet juice (added for color).” We only allow natural colors in our food products.

Examples of natural colors include annatto extract (yellow), dehydrated beets (bluish-red to brown), caramel (yellow to tan), beta-carotene (yellow to orange) and grape skin extract (red, green).

Difference between Artificial and Natural Flavors

Artificial flavors are produced through a set of complex chemical processes. They’re intended to have the same taste and odor sensations as natural products, but chemically they are very different. No artificial flavors are allowed in the foods we sell. They just aren’t necessary.

The foods we sell rely on natural flavors. By regulation, a natural flavor is one that is extracted or fermented from a spice, fruit, vegetable, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, or dairy products. Natural flavors are usually listed as “natural flavors” on an ingredient label.

Also, the regulated term “natural flavors” may not include MSG (monosodium glutamate), hydrolyzed proteins, and autolyzed yeast. These ingredients must all be declared on the label by their common or usual names rather than hidden within a blanket term like “natural flavors”. Regardless, you won’t find MSG in our stores. It’s one of our unacceptable ingredients for food.

You Won’t Find Artificial Colors in Our Food

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates color additives for food. Their reasons for adding color to foods include:

  • correcting natural variations in color
  • enhancing colors that occur naturally
  • providing color to colorless and "fun" foods
  • offsetting color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions

In the US, the FDA permits these nine artificial colorings in food:

  • Blue No. 1
  • Blue No. 2
  • Green No. 3
  • Red No. 3
  • Red No. 40
  • Yellow No. 5
  • Yellow No. 6
  • Citrus Red 2
  • Orange B

No Artificial Flavors Either

There are thousands of molecular compounds used as flavoring agents and they‘re often mixed together. Here are just a few simple examples:

  • Isoamyl acetate — banana
  • Benzaldehyde — bitter almond
  • Cinnamadehyde — cinnamon
  • Ethyl propionate — fruity
  • Methyl anthranilate — grape
  • Diacetyl – buttery
  • Limonene — orange
  • Ethyl maltol — sugar, cotton candy
  • Ethyvanillin — vanilla
  • Methyl salicylate — wintergreen

Because natural flavorings and colors aren’t as intense and abundant as artificial versions, they cost more for both manufacturers and consumers. It’s kind of funny how you have to pay a bit more to get food that has less added to it. Or is it just plain ironic?

Lots of folks choose to avoid additives in their food for a variety of reasons. Whether for a health concern, an allergy or a desire to eat closer to nature, our standards make it easier for you to know what’s in your food...and what isn’t. Find out the details on all of our quality standards.

Do you eat food free of artificial colors and flavors? What are your reasons?

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Anna Richter says …

Thank you for the work you do to make my shopping experience easier. And thank you for your explanation of your standards as well as the education and information you provide. Your commitment to quality gives me more confidence as an informed consumer!

Paula Owen says …

Yes, I do eat food free of artificial anything hence the reason I visit the Pinecrest Whole Foods weekly. Being from the Caribbean where everything is made with little ingredients I have always disliked chemicals. Now that I found out I have food sensitivity to wheat, gluten, soy, preservatives and colors especially red and yellow I am truly glad I found Whole Foods. Go Whole Foods!!

Ruth Lieurance says …

I've always been a healthy eater but almost 2 years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. So now, I am even more diligent about what I put into my body. I feel if you can prevent artificial flavors and colors and other processed foods, you should. I read labels carefully and avoid them as much as possible. I'm still learning (I keep a small notebook with all my learned information and take it to the store) how to avoid certain ingredients and what some of those long words mean. Any good suggestions or explanations? I'm all ears.

Sally Sprung says …

Keep up the gooooood work! No artificial colors or flavors - you're BRILLIANT!!! THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!!

Claire says …

I absolutely love Whole Foods. My local store consistently sells fresh and delicious produce and foods; it is the only grocery store I've found to carry such a huge variety of healthy foods. They also have the friendliest staff! I very much appreciate the high quality standards WF commits to, as well as their service to the community. That said, there is still room for improvement. Even though this article states that WF only uses natural food coloring and flavors (vs. artificial), can we truly be confident that just because it is labeled "natural" that it is safe? According to the Environmental Working Group: "Most people assume that a natural flavor describes something like strawberries, garlic, or chili pepper used to naturally season food. In reality, most natural flavors are created in a laboratory, just like artificial flavors. The only difference is that natural flavors must be sourced from a natural product, whereas artificial flavors do not." and "In the end, natural flavors often bear little resemblance to the natural product from which they came. Many times, the resulting chemical may even be identical to those created synthetically to make artificial flavors, yet it will likely be more expensive. Some natural flavors even contain propylene glycol, a solvent, or the preservative BHA! Genetically engineered flavor enhancers can also be listed under the artificial flavor (or natural flavor) label. One exception is certified organic natural flavors, which must meet more stringent guidelines and cannot contain synthetic or genetically engineered ingredients." http://www.iqfit.com/ewg-releases-dirty-dozen-guide-to-food-additives/. So WF, keep up the good work, but please continue to beef up your quality standards! Especially with simple, whole foods like milk - why can't I get heavy whipping cream without carageenan in it (both Horizon and Organic Valley add this questionable thickener to their cream)?

Debbie Heidfeld says …

Your quality standards are one of the most important reasons to shop at Whole Foods. I have explained this to a lot of people. Of course the organic standards are even stricter so the more you can stick to these products the better.

Laura says …

This is why your store is my favorite place to shop!! I have 2 little boys and work hard to not let them eat artificial food dyes. Thank you for sharing this and for your high standards to quality!

Christie says …

The article is interesting and informative. What is missing is a list of natural coloring agents for food that a home cook can use and where to find them. Love the store and the website. Thanks.

Jeanie Rosenthal says …

Thanks, Claire, for giving the true scoop in re so-called "natural flavors." I've long rued the fact that many "healthy food" stores -- including Whole Foods (and now even the Amy's branch!!) -- claim "No artificial flavors" (because "artificial" sounds bad) but then use the deceptive "natural flavors." I've even seen "natural strawberry flavor" -- which, presumably does not necessarily contain even a lick of actual strawberries. I'll continue to be wary of ANY manufactured flavors ("artificial" or "natural") and avoid purchasing them. For shame on Whole Foods and pretty much ALL processed foods containing "flavors" (see Wikipedia article re "excitotoxins" [powerfully and negatively acting on our brains] which includes manufactured flavors). Give us ONLY the REAL deal Whole foods!

Claire says …

Christie, There are lots of ways to use REAL natural coloring in your home cooking - beet juice from a fresh beet makes a great pink, for example. But for me, the most beautiful presentation is real food itself without trying to make it look like all the fake food that has been marketed to us for so long. And hear, hear, Jeanie! Yes Whole Foods, we just want the real deal! Urge your food suppliers to stop adulterating food! I don't want to buy heavy whipping cream with carrageenan in it for the same reason I don't want artificial colors making pickles prettier. I just want real food.

Alma Martinez says …

Dissapointed to know the FDA allows all of those "useless" additives. Thank you for looking out after our health and the health of our children! keep up the good work :)

Jon Leonard says …

Hi there, I saw that your article identifies that autolyzed yeast may not be considered a natural flavor, however, I don't see it on the Whole Foods Market Unacceptable Ingredients for Food list. Does that mean it is acceptable, or might this have been an accidental omission? Thanks, Jon Leonard

Defender says …

Well done, Whole Foods!

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@JON - Autolyzed yeast protein is not again our quality standards. You can read more at http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/about-our-products/quality-standards/food-ingredient.

Kate says …

How is caramel color a natural color? I'm happy to know that you use annato, beets, etc., but how does caramel color fit at WFM? Are you using a different caramel color than the one you discussed in an issue of WFM Magazine that you described as a carcinogen?

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@KATE - Can you elaborate on the magazine you are referring to exactly? Since caramel color is made primarily of caramelized sugars, we do not find it to be artificial in the same way as purely synthetic colors like Red #3 or Yellow #5, for examples (which are unacceptable to our quality standards for foods, supplements and body care).

V says …

The no artificial flavor section has natural chemicals available though. You might want to clarify whether you are going to ban the natural versions of iso amyl acetate, limonene etc etc

ed rodom says …

desserts made with stevia