My oldest son has a pineapple allergy. He was super disappointed when he couldn’t eat the gummy bears he was gifted. “It has pineapple,” he said, pointing at the tiny gummy bear on the package with pineapple clearly marked as a flavor in the assortment.
I read the ingredients carefully and saw no mention of pineapple. The only explanation was that the pineapple was in the “natural flavor.” Come to think of it…it was pretty weird that the flavors advertised on the package didn’t match with any of the ingredients on the list. How do they get gummy bears with the same ingredients to taste different, anyway? I mean, really, what the hell is “natural flavor”?
I started paying closer attention after my curiosity was piqued. I don’t eat a whole lot of packaged foods, but I noticed my cold brew coffee had natural flavor. The gluten-free macaroni and cheese I buy for the boys had natural flavor. I scanned the ingredients of my almond milk I use for my morning latte. You guessed it. Natural flavor. It was everywhere.
Have you noticed the term “natural flavor” on the ingredient list of your food before? Apparently this stuff is in everything. It is actually the fourth most common ingredient in packaged food —right behind salt, water, and sugar.
I was left with two questions. What the hell is natural flavor? And why is it so vague in its labeling?
The term “natural” evokes pictures of cows grazing pastures freely, kids skipping down the street, an apple falling into your hands from Uncle Bob’s tree, and a flower opening in the sun’s beautiful rays.
After a little research, I learned that there’s not a whole lot natural about this shit. The cow is eating corn in its small confines, the kids are playing video games and getting fatter, your uncle sprayed that tree with toxic bug spray, and the flower is dying from the fumes coming from the nearby power plant.
Did I crush all your hopes and dreams in humanity? Good. That’s my job.
Here is the official definition of natural flavor under the Code of Federal Regulations. Just skim that crap, because it doesn’t really explain anything anyway.
“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”
Turns out, natural flavor is very similar to artificial flavor. The only difference is that this highly processed additive originates from something natural. But that raspberry deliciousness in your raspberry yogurt, probably isn’t just crushed up raspberries. It is likely a highly processed chemical originally found in raspberries, or maybe even another substance altogether…like a beaver’s backside. (Did she just say beaver’s backside?) You bet I did! Here is the highlight of my research. Did you know castoreum is used in natural flavors like raspberry and vanilla? What is castoreum, you ask? Good question. That shit comes from a beaver’s anal glands. True freaking story.
I read this 60 minutes transcript, The Flavorists: tweaking tastebuds and creating cravings, in which they interviewed Givaudan, a Swiss company that employs almost 9,000 people in 45 countries, providing natural flavors to much of the world.
Here’s a quote from the transcript. It’s too good not to share.
“All flavors are combinations of chemicals – artificial flavors are largely manmade. Natural flavors come from nature, but not necessarily from what the label implies. For example, strawberry and vanilla flavor can come from the gland in a beaver’s backside.”
And the room goes silent.
Well, that would explain why the labeling of natural flavoring is so vague. You probably wouldn’t eat something with beaver’s backside in it. Also, it turns out added flavoring can contain anywhere from 50 to 100 ingredients. Natural flavor is also packed with preservatives and solvents. Food manufacturers are not required to disclose the ingredients of the “natural flavors” added, which means that it can pretty much include anything, even something to which you are allergic. This presents a problem when you are trying to figure out if it might contain an allergen. And it is just deceiving and that pisses me off.
Why put it in? Natural and artificial flavors hijack our taste buds and make us crave more food. In reading the 60 Minutes transcript, the Givaduan employee describes how they try to get the flavor just right, with enough intensity that it ignites our tastebuds, but with the flavor tapering, so that we want to eat more. Like so many things in our American food culture, natural flavors are over the top. Flavoring is like a party for our tastebuds, and our tastebuds always want to party. The result can be overeating and weight gain.
God damn it. What is wrong with you FDA? Just tell us what we are eating.
Now, every time I sip my coffee, I will wonder if a beaver’s anus was involved.