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A customer enters a Loblaw Cos. Ltd. store in Toronto on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011.

Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Loblaws, Canada's largest grocer, is banishing artificial colours and flavours from its signature President's Choice line of products, The Globe and Mail has learned.

Galen G. Weston, executive chairman of Loblaw Cos. Ltd., will make the announcement at the company's annual general meeting on Thursday.

Although it's a challenging task, particularly when it comes to candy and other vibrantly-coloured confectionery items, the decision was sparked in response to growing demand for natural products, according to Ian Gordon, senior vice-president of Loblaw Brands.

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"We hear more and more concern from consumers about artificial flavours and colours and we just think it's the right thing to do," he said in an interview.

Artificial flavours and colours have emerged as one of the biggest nutritional bogeymen in the eyes of many Canadian consumers in recent years after some studies have linked their consumption to everything from allergies to potential behaviour problems or hyperactivity in children, and possibly even some types of cancer.

Advocacy groups such as the Ottawa-based Centre for Science in the Public Interest have called for better controls on the use of artificial dyes and flavours and improved labelling laws. In Canada, food companies aren't required to spell out which artificial colours they use on product labels. Health Canada has floated the idea of changing that.

Members of the medical and scientific communities remain divided about the true risks of artificial flavours and colours. For instance, some studies that found links between hyperactivity and synthetic food dyes have been criticized for using shoddy methodology. But in an era when many equate natural ingredients with better health, some consumers don't want to wait and are demanding a shift in the food industry.

And the industry has begun responding. For instance, Nestlé has removed artificial colours from Smarties in Canada, while the company announced in March all of its confection items sold in Britain will contain only natural flavours and dyes and no artificial preservatives.

Now, Loblaws is becoming the first major Canadian chain to position itself as a leader in the movement away from artificial flavours and colours.

By the end of this year, all artificial colours in the PC line (which includes Blue Menu, Organics and Green branded products) will be removed; by the end of 2013, all artificial flavours will be removed.

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It's a large undertaking and the company has been faced with the challenge of finding alternate ingredients that don't sacrifice shelf life, taste or overall appearance, Mr. Gordon said. Confectionery items, such as candy and ice cream, are particularly difficult because consumers have been conditioned to expect the bright, vibrant colours of artificial dyes, he added.

"It is not an easy task," Mr. Gordon said. "If it was an easy task everybody would be doing it."

But consumers should take note that products are not necessarily healthier simply because they may contain some natural ingredients. Rena Mendelson, professor of nutrition at Ryerson University in Toronto, said that products containing natural flavours and dyes may still contain unwanted preservatives, additives or stabilizers.

Even natural ingredients can be harmful to health, such as excessive amounts of sugar and sodium.

Yet, by marketing their products as free of artificial dyes and colours, companies such as Loblaws are appealing to a broad segment of health conscious consumers, Prof. Mendelson said.

"I think the real trend here is to say…we're really concerned about your health and therefore we're doing everything we possibly can to assure you our products are taking [that]into account."

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Even though the evidence linking artificial dyes and flavours to health problems isn't conclusive, Prof. Mendelson said switching to more natural ingredients may be a sure-fire way to increase profits.

"[It's]an opportunity to position yourself as being highly interested in health and health sells," she said. "It's a way to differentiate in a very crowded marketplace."

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