Natural Flavorings – No Not Really

Have you ever wondered what the term “natural flavorings” on a food label means? I can tell you what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that natural items were used to create that flavoring. The truth is far more disturbing.

To this day it baffles me that this mis-use of the words “natural flavorings” is even allowed. I went on for years having no idea what that meant.

I assumed that if something had an orange flavor, that they flavored it with oranges. Isn’t that adorable?
 
 

So What Are Natural Flavorings?

Let’s start with a definition of “natural flavorings” as determined by the US Federal Code of 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.”

There is an awful lot of wiggle room in there for companies to get creative. And creative they are.
  

Why Are They Used?

Foods in the middle of the grocery store have to be made to last. Truly organic compounds break down. They can’t sit for weeks and months without getting moldy, rotting, or otherwise inedible.

But because people are getting more savvy to the inclusion of preservatives to prevent this, there are other methods used to preserve packaged food.

I found this list of processing techniques on an MD’s blog about natural flavorings:
Boiling, pressurizing, oxidation, osmotic inhibition, freezing, high water pressure, dehydration, smoking, mineral removal.

That list is consistent with other sources I’ve read about food production.

When those methods are used, many of the nutrients in a food are destroyed. And so is the taste.

To make the food look and taste good, “natural flavorings” are added back in.
  

But This Package Says Organic!

When it comes to packaged food, the requirements for calling the product organic aren’t as comprehensive as you may think. Food processors can get away with quite a bit.

They also aren’t necessarily worried about their own vendor’s standards. The fact is that if they aren’t required to list an ingredient on a label, they probably won’t.
  

One Of The Big Guys

Flavoring and fragrances are big business. Huge business. One of the leaders in the industry is a company called International Flavors and Fragrances.

They are staffed by a massive team of scientists who create flavors and fragrances from an infinite number of sources. Some of which would make your stomach turn.

When you read some of the pages on their website, they point out “advanced technical capabilities” and “cutting edge science” as being a big part of their ability to produce fragrances and flavors.

I don’t know about you, but its a little weird to mix “technical capabilities” with food. I’m not eating a computer or a space ship. I just want a snack.
  

Skip This Section If You Are Easily Grossed Out

Here are a few examples of ingredients in foods that are not legally required to be listed on food lables because they are covered under the umbrella of “natural”, or are named in such a way that you probably gloss right over them.

Castoreum

This chemical is derived from a gland taken out of beavers. The gland is located very close to the beaver’s anus. Granted, the chemical undergoes significant processing…but that doesn’t make me feel any better.

Even though it is legally considered to be a “natural flavoring”.

It is used so widely, that the European Beaver was hunted to near extinction.

I couldn’t believe this when I first read it so I spent about an hour trying to find a snopes.com debunking. I couldn’t. Let me know if you have more luck.

To see what products castoreum is used in, click here.

Carmine, aka Natural Red #4

I’ve known about this one for years but a lot of people still don’t. Seems innocent enough right? Because beetles never hurt anyone right?

Yes, Natural Red #4 is made from beetles. The cochina beetle to be exact.

These beetles are dried, ground up, processed, and added to foods that are designed to have a red coloring in them, or….used to color a food that is supposed to be red, but lost its original color during processing.

For example…that strawberry yogurt isn’t necessarily pink because of the strawberries. Catch my drift?

Benzaldehyde – Almond Flavor

This one is a total kicker. One process through which this flavor is made includes extracting constituents from items like peach pits. Seems natural enough, but it has been shown that detectable levels of hydrogen cyanide are present in the resulting compound. It is legally known as a “natural ingredient.”

The same flavoring can be made through a different, but unnatural process. The flavoring is then considered to be an “artificial flavor” but does not contain hydrogen cyanide.

Ok…so let’s get this straight. The “natural ingredient” in this example contains a poison…but the “artificial ingredient” doesn’t? Hmmm….
  

I’m Not Telling

That is the answer you will typically get if you call a food manufacturer and ask them what they mean by “natural flavoring” or Red Dye #4.

Don’t get mad at the poor guy who answered the phone. They won’t tell him either. He’s just reading from a script.

But really….if there is nothing wrong with “natural flavors” then why won’t these companies disclose what they are actually made of?
  

Lying By Omission

There really isn’t much difference between a “natural flavoring” and an “artificial flavoring”. Natural flavoring basically just means that (many many extremely un-natural chemical processes ago) what you are eating came from a natural source. Like a gland near a beaver’s behind.

Artificial means it has no natural origin at all. Hey….at least they’re being honest….for once.

The term artificial is used to market to people who don’t care what they are eating.

The term natural was approved for use when marketing to people like you and I. And I fell for it for years. So if you did too…don’t feel bad.

Of course people aren’t dropping dead left and right after eating natural almond flavoring. Of course the beetles in Red Dye #4 are highly refined to the point that they no longer resemble beetles.

But the problem is…..they’re messing with us. They are essentially lying by omission because they know that the truth would cause their sales to plummet. And it’s totally legal.

But look at cancer rates in this country as well as other diseases that are still relatively new and a total mystery. What is causing them?

Don’t you and I have a right to know if we’re eating something derived from a source we would rather not eat? Or that just doesn’t feel right to be eating?

Hydrogen cyanide may not kill you on the spot in tiny quantities…but what are the long term effects? Can anyone say that these strange trace compounds don’t have lethal impact over the long term?
  

Sheesh! Now What?

Well my friend…to the outside of the grocery store we return. You won’t find these linguistic shenanigans there. Celery is celery and tomatoes are tomatoes.

Otherwise, check your organic packaged foods. If you see the words “natural flavors”, get skeptical. There could be anything in there.
  

Safe Zone

Of course you know that you won’t have to worry about any of this at Chakra 4. We can guarantee you that no beavers, beetles, or peach pits were harmed in the creation of our menu.

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6 Comments

  1. I have questioned that “natural” anything for years, especially when if you read the label you can’t pronounce most of the ingredients and the ones you can make no sense being in that particular product…LOL Thanks for confirming what I’ve suspected for years now.

    Reply
    • Hi Lynda,

      I’m glad we could help!

      Nick

      Reply
  2. Though I agree with the intentions of the article, and am taken back by the discovery of the use of castoreum, I must point something out: The procurement of cynanide-containing Benzaldehyde is not as shocking as you may think, considering Peaches and almonds are in the same genus (Prunus)and that almonds, in their natural form, also contain a detectable amount of hydrogen cyanide, which your body will usually synthesize into vitamin B-12. A little cyanide never hurt anyone :)

    Reply
    • Hi Matthew,

      That’s a very interesting insight. We will have to research that a bit further.

      Thanks for your contribution.

      Warm Regards,
      Nick

      Reply
  3. Years ago, I had heard that MSG was derived from a plant source and so that many times when you see natural flavoring as an ingredient, it’s MSG. I don’t know if that is fully accurate but would love to know more….. It’s been an alert ingredient for years but so important to be getting the true skinny. Thanks for doing such a great research job, Nick and if anyone knows the answer to the MSG query, fire away.

    Reply
    • Hi Claudia,

      From what I understand MSG is made from a naturally occurring amino acid: L-glutamate.

      It was originally derived from seaweed but exists in lots of different plants. It is extracted through a bacterial culture and then added to foods when mixed with a couple of other substances in varying amounts depending on the food.

      I do believe that it falls under the natural flavorings umbrella but the word natural flavorings doesn’t always mean MSG is present. It is also often found in hydrolyzed protein, soy protein isolate, textured protein, corn starch, ultra-pasteurized items and likely many other places.

      What freaks me out about MSG is that it can hide other tastes like the taste of something that was in a can or enhance flavors that were reduced by other processing methods. Essentially it tricks us into thinking we are eating something that is more savory or “foody” than it really is. It also can overstimulate cells and kill them off.

      I can do more research and put out an article if I can pull together enough info.

      I hope this helped.

      -Nick

      Reply

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