It seems counter-intuitive to use chemicals to make something smell or taste like strawberries when you could use—duh—actual strawberries. But artificial flavors and colorings are used by food producers because breaking down a flavor into its chemical parts can be much cheaper than using the real thing.
Take that strawberry, for example. When you combine the chemicals cinnamic acid and methyl alcohol, you get methyl cinnamate, which smells like strawberries. And those chemistry lab concoctions are much cheaper to produce and easier to preserve than fresh strawberries.
To most of us "methyl alcohol" doesn't really mean anything. It doesn't sound particularly tasty, but it's not exactly scary, either. Artificial vanilla flavoring, on the other hand, is either made from petrochemicals or derived from a by-product of the paper industry, according to Alexandra Zissu, author of The Conscious Kitchen. Gross!
Natural flavorings may make us feel better when we see them on our food labels, but they're not necessarily much better for us. While a natural flavoring is derived from a natural food—meat, spices or fruits, for example—it can then betransformed with chemical additives. So, not-so-natural after all.
Why even use these added flavors? When foods are dehydrated, canned or frozen at an industrial scale, they lose some of their natural flavors, and so companies use added flavorings to pump the flavor back up.
But Robyn O’Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth – How Our Food is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, argues that science has linked artificial colors, flavors and sweetners to behavioral issues and allergies in children. O'Brien and the website HealthyChild.org (of which she is a board member) suggests four key steps to cut out the artificial flavors from your diet:
- Ax the Artificials: Eliminate as many foods as possible that list artificial colors or flavors in their ingredients.
- Shop Savvy: Choose to shop at stores like Trader Joes, Whole Foods Market or Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage—or any natural foods store that has made a committment not to sell products with artificial ingredients.
- Cook Clean: Getting back into the kitchen and cooking things from scratch can go a long way to reducing your exposure to artificial flavors.
- Find a Friend: Buddy up with a friend who is also concerned about artificial chemicals in her food; it will be easier to stick to your plan if you have support when other people question your decision.