The “natural flavor” trap in processed food
Pay attention and you will see something strange in the supermarket. Food brands begin to promote their products with claims that are difficult to understand.
For example, the already “100% vegetable” idea, the oatmeal drink of a well-known brand is presented to the buyer with two curious words: “natural flavor”.
But what does that mean?
The truth is that we do not agree on what such a brief message means, but quickly fall prey to the urge to put it in the supermarket cart.
According to a survey that the company Ipsos made last year, which asked consumers in 28 countries what they understood by “natural flavor”, the diversity of opinions is the norm.
Some of the participants said that it was all made without artificial ingredients; others, which were 100% products from nature and, most of all, a synonym of healthy.
The key to the phenomenon seems to be in the last response.
Could it be that the food industry is benefiting from this label that makes us believe that their product is healthier, when it is not true?
It is not about being cynical, but we all know situations like this.
The truth is that there is no specific legislation that defines the term “natural”.
We can say that, broadly speaking, it is something that reminds us of the product of origin, a concept formed by elements that generate an impulse of acceptance, trust and purchase.
That is what market studies detect, that consumers demand more and more natural or minimalist foods in their conception and that the ‘natural’ claim is an upward trend.
The interest of the food industry to place that labeling on their products is clear, and fits in all kinds of packages: in the juices, the broths, the pastry, the pâté, the ice cream, the fried tomato, the cheeses, the creams, jams, chocolate, dairy…
Natural flavors are not good but artificial flavors are indeed bad.
According to the Association of American Flavor Extract Manufacturers, the natural flavor means it “comes from natural sources, whether vegetable or animal, through a prolonged extraction process, while artificial flavors, even if they have the same chemical composition that the natural ones, are those whose source comes from the laboratory.
But, given the lack of community regulation, each manufacturer interprets what is a “natural flavor” in its own way, and that can have consequences.
Natural flavorings are often subject to greater food safety hazards than chemicals, because they move in conditions that are not always controlled.
For example, its supply chain is much more complex and generally has more elements of control and traceability than artificial flavors. Also there is a tendency to reject chemistry and everything that has to do with the technology.
It seems contradictory, but food engineers praise the potential of technology to get more “natural” foods.
They say it allows them to extract odors and flavors of raw materials that are in nature, but also artificially incorporate natural flavors into foods that originally did not contain them, replacing chemical additives, for example.
It also serves to generate the conditions -through biotechnology- that lead to the appearance of a series of aromas or flavors of this condition that, in other conditions, would not occur.
It is clear that the “natural” does not have to be always better, but it is also not free of chemicals.
Initially natural spices were used as flavoring, but the industry had to turn back.
They generated potential problems from the microbiological point of view, so the industry chose artificial chemical additives to offer the product with all the guarantees to the consumer.
On the other hand, “non-natural” flavors do not only arise in the laboratory. For example, is the aroma and taste of freshly baked bread natural?
The answer is no, because it responds to a chemical process that results when, after baking the bread, chemical reactions generate the characteristic odor are produced.
Cheese – that undeserved enemy of diets – is another example. Its natural aroma is a consequence of its natural fermentation process.
The professor of the University of Minnesota Gary Reineccius explained in an article in Scientific American magazine, the little difference that exists between the chemical compositions of the natural and artificial aromas:
“Both are made in a laboratory by a trained professional, who combines the chemicals in their correct proportions. That is, it uses natural chemistries to make natural flavors and synthetic chemicals to make artificial flavors, and the latter are made with the same formula as those that would be used to make a natural flavor, because otherwise that flavor would not have the wanted flavor wanted.
The expert also mentioned the cost of manufacturing a natural and an artificial flavor, something that is not always justified by the quality of the final product. Reineccius exemplified the taste of coconut.
“Natural flavorings depend on a chemical substance called Massoia lactone, which comes from the bark of the Massoia tree, which grows in Malaysia. Well, collecting this natural chemical kills the tree because you have to remove the bark to get the lactone. In addition, it is a process that uses a lot of manpower and high technology, which is quite expensive.”
However, according to the scientist, this natural chemical is identical to the version made in a laboratory, so in the end the consumer is paying much more money for a product that is neither safer nor better quality.
History repeats itself in a multitude of products. There are many natural flavors on the market, but the most common ones are chocolate, strawberry and vanilla, possibly the most popular flavor in the world.
It is not only in candy, ice cream and cookies, but it is a flavor that is added to other foods because it improves the perception of other flavors, such as chocolate, fruits and coffee.
Despite being so popular, you may never have eaten a product that contains natural vanilla extract, since it is obtained from orchids difficult to collect, which only grow in a few tropical areas of the planet, which makes it impossible to supply the annual demand that the planet needs, which are more than 16,000 tons.
What you may have eaten are substitutes such as castoreum extract or those created in the laboratory, with almost identical taste results.
If you are lucky enough to have tried a product made with vanilla from the natural plant, you may have experienced an incredible sensory experience.
But it will only be a taste. If you are interested in knowing the amount of sugars, fats and calories that the food in question has, you will have to read the label, because nobody assures you that it is precisely good for your health. And that’s what matters, is it not?