Are you a label snob? When it comes to grocery shopping, I sure hope so! Food labels are chock full of information about product ingredients and nutrition. But buyer beware - the terminology on labels can be confusing - and even misleading.
There are many reasons for this. For one thing, it is difficult to standardize terms and definitions across the vast food and beverage manufacturing industry. Also, nutrition science is complex, and cannot be boiled down to words on a package. But there’s another reason these labels can be so tricky: manufacturer loopholes and incentives.
What do I mean? Well, consider that the number one goal of most food and beverage manufacturers is to produce products that are highly profitable, appealing, tasty, and shelf stable. Their ultimate goal is to keep you coming back for more.
While not all manufacturers have ill intent, they do have a vested interest in framing their products in the best light possible. And as consumers become more and more savvy and health-conscious, manufacturers have found more and more ways to appeal to such consumers. The problem is that the claims are often not what they seem.
Case in point: natural flavors.
When you see the term “natural flavors” on a label, you may picture an orange being freshly squeezed, or vanilla beans being pressed, or lemongrass leaves being crushed.
Not so much.
Instead, picture this:
A food chemist, called a flavorist, is in a lab concocting this so-called natural flavor from the molecules of something natural that are chemically engineered into something that mimics the taste of something else.
That’s not really so natural, is it?
Here is the FDA’s definition of a natural flavor: “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating, or enzymolysis [decomposition of chemical compound], 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.”
In layman’s terms, a natural flavor originates in a plant or animal, then a flavorist works with this natural source and blends it in a lab with any number of chemicals so that it mimics a particular taste. For example, cherry flavors tend to include five to ten individual chemical flavors. If the cherry itself were in the product, the word “cherry” would be listed in the ingredients list.
Here’s another great example I read about a couple years ago. Let’s say a vodka company wants to create a passionfruit-flavored vodka. It is simply not cost-effective or possible to obtain enough passionfruit to flavor all the vodka. The chemist’s job is to find a cheaper, more readily available source that mimics passionfruit’s molecular fingerprint. It just so happens that the sulfur-containing volatiles in grapefruit are similar to those in passionfruit. These grapefruit volatiles can be extracted to form a base substance, which can then be diluted and blended with any number of things to create the passionfruit flavor profile. This “natural flavor” can then be manufactured at a production plant. But nothing was ever plucked from a passionfruit vine.
Some of these natural flavors don’t seem so bad – like using grapefruit for passionfruit or African violets as a base to mimic the taste of watermelon. And many of the chemicals are deemed safe in small quantities. But as consumers we have no way of knowing what other preservatives, solvents, and chemicals are contained in the natural flavors. Some have been linked with cancer-causing chemicals or other stuff you just don’t want in your body. Or at a minimum, that you should be aware you are consuming.
You may also be interested to know that substances like cochineal extract (the dried blood of crushed cochineal insects) and castoreum (the secretions of a beaver's perineal gland) have been used and are FDA-approved. The use of castoreum, primarily as a vanilla flavoring, is not common practice nowadays for cost and practical reasons, but the point is – it’s a natural source, so you just never know.
What is so concerning is that there is very little FDA regulation or oversight over natural flavors. Furthermore, the FDA doesn’t require manufacturers to itemize what’s in the natural flavor - unless it contains a common allergen. Also, flavor extracts may be derived from genetically modified organism (GMO) sources.
It’s like a flavor cocktail, and you don’t know what’s in that cocktail.
So what are we to do? I’m not suggesting you never consume another product that contains natural flavors. But I am suggesting the following:
Be aware. Don’t be fooled into thinking you are consuming something healthy because it carries the “natural flavors” label. As a matter of fact, natural and artificial flavors are very similar chemically and nutritionally, no matter how “natural flavors” are dressed up.
Consider the source. Try to buy only from companies you trust. Do your research.
Go for whole foods. The more we consume whole foods that weren’t created in a factory, manufacturing plant, or lab, the better off we will be.
Be choosy. When buying packaged and processed foods, look for products with a short ingredients list that you can understand and pronounce. If you wouldn’t want it in your cocktail, don’t buy it off the shelf.
Spice it up. Your spice drawer is your friend. As much as possible, cook your own food and rely on what nature provides to jazz up the flavor profile of your food.
If you're working hard to exercise and eat healthy, that's excellent news. But don't let processed and packaged foods throw you off course. Too many people work hard at the gym only to sabotage their best workout efforts at the grocery store.
With this information, I hope you'll be more empowered for your next trip down the aisles. As for me, I’m steering clear of the crushed-up bugs.
Alison Jones is one of Merritt Clubs’ Health and Life Coaches. If you would like to schedule a session with Alison or are interested in additional information about our Nutrition & Wellness services, please reach out to Sherri Lively at firstname.lastname@example.org.
https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/ - (FDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA § 381.118)