image by: Criativithy
The word “natural” has become perhaps the most misleading term in the food industry. Nothing makes that clearer than “natural flavoring,” a marketing trick used to enhance or even mask that actual natural flavor of what you’re eating.
Generally speaking, “natural” is not an obscure concept. Pretty much any middle-schooler can give you an exhaustive list of natural human hair colors. You’ve got your spectrum of browns, blonds, grays, and oranges (for some reason referred to as “reds”), plus white and black. That’s it. If you see blue, pink, purple, green, or genuine red, it’s not natural.
But for reasons of marketing and profit, in the world of food naturalness is not so straightforward. Whereas a food’s natural flavors are, well, whatever that food naturally tastes like—which naturally varies according to quality, preparation, and whatever other foods it’s tasted in combination with—in the packaged-food industry “natural flavors” is an ingredient unto itself—and a ubiquitous one. According to David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “natural flavors” is the fourth-most commonly listed ingredient on food labels, trailing only salt, water, and sugar.
What are “natural flavors” qua ingredient? As per Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulations, “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.”
If that sounds weird but innocent—it’s natural, right?—perhaps you might be put off by the gustatory deception in one of Andrews’s pet examples: McDonald’s “natural beef flavor” is actually derived from wheat and milk, which may prevent you from tasting just how poor the quality is of those two supposedly all-beef patties on your Big Mac. A similar bit of misdirection is common with many brands of orange juice that include “natural flavors” to compensate for a natural (i.e., genuinely natural) loss of flavor brought about by pasteurization.
“When foods are pasteurized for safety, many of the volatile chemicals evaporate or degrade,” Andrews says. “To make a product like orange juice taste fresh after pasteurization, these chemicals have to be restored. [In this case, “natural flavors”] dupe your taste buds and smell receptors into believing you are drinking fresh orange juice when it really may be rather old.”
Things get even more ethically problematic when you consider a case like castoreum, an oily secretion that emanates from sacs between a beaver’s anus and external genitals used as an FDA-approved natural flavoring as a substitute for vanilla (and sometimes strawberry or raspberry) flavoring. Although today its use as a food additive is rare, that an animal gland could be used in foodstuff that one might presume to be vegetarian-friendly makes clear just how unnatural “natural flavoring” can be.
The FDA’s justification for not forcing manufacturers to list every single ingredient is that the amounts of each component of “natural flavors” are miniscule. But that doesn’t necessarily matter when it comes to food allergies, an area where “natural flavors” can present safety concerns. Although the FDA requires that the top eight food allergens (milk, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and crustacean shellfish) be listed specifically if any amounts are present in a foodstuff, the 300,000 to 500,000 Americans allergic to sesame—which, like other seed allergies, can be life-threatening—can unknowingly ingest their allergen under the umbrella “natural flavors.”
Although the intent behind “natural flavors” is not so nefarious as to trick consumers into unknowingly ingesting allergens, “natural flavors” are intentionally designed to get you to consume food you would not eat were its flavors confined to the truly natural. That applies not only to the quality of the food (such as the above example with orange juice), but also the quantity.
Just how wickedly profit-driven is the use of “natural flavors” is clear from a 2011 60 Minutes profile on food flavoring. “In our fruit flavors,” explains Dawn Streich, global citrus product manager for industry leader Givaudan, “we're talking about, we want a burst in the beginning. And maybe a finish that doesn't linger too much so that you want more of it.” “And you don't want a long linger,” adds Givaudan’s Jim Hassel, “because you're not going to eat more of it if it lingers.”
On follow-up, Hassel freely admits that Givaudan’s aim with “natural flavors” is to create a kind of addiction. As former FDA Commission Dr David Kessler notes later in the 60 Minutes piece, “We're living in a food carnival. These flavors are so stimulating, they hijack our brain.”
If all of this sounds unappetizing to you, don’t bite. Although “natural flavors” aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, you can read those food labels and confine your consumption to the truly natural.
About the Author:
Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California. Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.
His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals. HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up. For more information: greggorymoore.com
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