|Photo by Horia Varlan|
Even if you generally avoid processed foods, and otherwise diligently read ingredient labels, how often do you turn a blind eye to “natural” flavors? After all, they’re “natural”, how bad can they be, right?
Wrong. There’s 2 main problems with natural flavors:
1) They’re not natural.
When most health-conscious folks see “artificial flavors” listed as an ingredient, they’ll put that product right back on the shelf. Maybe they should consider doing the same with “natural flavors”…
According to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation,
“The similarities between these two broad categories are far more significant than the differences. Both are man-made additives that give most processed food most of its taste.”
In fact, both natural and artificial flavors are manufactured in labs, by the same companies that make fragrances, and by a very similar process. As Schlosser explains,
“ The aroma of a food can be responsible for as much as 90 percent of its taste.”
Basically, processed foods are almost entirely stripped of their flavors during processing. They’re almost a blank slate (if not worse) in terms of flavor and can be made to taste like anything via the addition of these flavor compounds. Next time you’re skimming ingredient labels, see how many products you can find without the addition of some sort of flavor chemical. The flavor industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s literally what gives processed food its taste, as well as extending its shelf life and cutting ingredient costs.
Are natural flavors really that similar to artificial ones? According to Schlosser,
“Natural flavors and artificial flavors sometimes contain exactly the same chemicals, produced through different methods… A natural flavor is not necessarily more healthful or purer than an artificial one.”
The US Food and Drug Administration defines “natural flavors” as follows (From the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR)):
The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.
So as long as you start with a natural ingredient, you can do whatever the heck you want with it, and the end result, regardless of how many solvents you used or how you processed it, will be labeled as a “natural flavor.”
Maybe at this point you’re starting to wonder exactly what the natural flavor you’re consuming is made of? That brings us to the second problem.
2) You’ll never know what you’re actually eating.
All these flavors are proprietary. Meaning the manufacturers have no legal obligation to disclose what’s in them, as long as the chemicals are GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe – sounds reassuring, doesn’t it?).
Here’s another comforting thought, Schlosser, who’s been inside many of these flavor manufacturers’ plants says that these flavor compounds often contain more ingredients than the foods they’re flavoring.
How do we limit our exposure to these questionable substances?
1) Eat whole foods. Seems to be a pretty foolproof solution in many regards. Whole foods don’t require ingredient labels.
2) Read ingredient labels. With the processed food you do buy, at least be aware of what’s in them, and don’t be lulled into thinking that it’s “natural.”
If I want something to taste like blueberries, I expect actual blueberries to be used. If I’m about to eat a science experiment, then I’d prefer it wasn’t labeled “natural.”
What’s your approach to natural flavors? Do you turn a blind eye, or find alternatives?