Natural Flavors

It’s at the end of many ingredient lists in processed food: “natural flavor.” But what substances fall under this benign label? What natural sources are they extracted from? If you shop in the center aisles of the grocery store, chances are those natural flavor ingredients came from an unexpected source and spent some time being swished around in a beaker.

Food science defines natural by what it is not: the FDA “has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

This non-definition gives food companies plenty of room to tout “All Natural” on their packages even with ingredients that have been hydrolised, distilled and emulsified to taste completely different. Both natural and artificial flavors are chemicals – the distinction is whether they are completely synthetic or first derived from a natural source.

Former food marketer Bruce Bradley notes some notorious sources of natural flavors in his blog series All Natural . . . Really? One of the most cringe-worthy is shellac, the resinous secretion of female lac bugs used to glaze donuts and make shiny candy shells. Another natural flavor you wouldn’t find yourself consuming in nature is cystine, a dough conditioner derived from human hair and duck feathers. Maltodextrin derived from genetically-modified corn is also considered natural.

On a recent visit to multi-national flavor company Givaudan, 60 Minutes highlighted the use of beavers’ anal gland secretions in the manufacture of vanilla and raspberry flavors.

For the discerning shopper, “natural” is little more than marketing hype. Organic foods are not always an exception since flavors constitute less than 5% of the total ingredients, and organic standards follow a 95% rule. Last year, the Organic Trade Association formed an Industry Task Force to review flavor categories and see if some flavors could be organically produced, which might be a step towards clarifying the flavor classification system.

In the mean time, food companies can enjoy using the umbrella term “natural flavors” to cover a whole range of proprietary chemical translations that make their product memorable, irresistible and, some say, addictive. Can you imagine if manufacturers had to list ingredients like “distinctive quality of beaver gland,” “essence of beetle juice” or “pleasurable perception of shellac?” Pleasurable or not, being label literate might make you want to put those bottles, cans and boxes back on the shelf.

Keep in touch with Erin on Twitter: @ErinPie

image: stevendepolo