Of all the underhanded and insidious things food manufacturers do to increase profits and get consumers hooked on their food products, there is probably nothing so mind-bendingly dishonest and dangerous as the concept of “natural flavors.”
The term may sound harmless, but the problem is that there’s nothing natural about these flavors whatsoever.
Natural flavors, organic flavoring and the like contain some of the most harmful (and sometimes the grossest) ingredients most of us have unknowingly consumed in our lifetimes. Even worse, they’re incredibly common in our so-called “health foods.” Head to any natural products convention or healthy supermarket and you’d be hard-pressed to find products that don’t include some sort of flavoring agent.
Why does the food industry do this? And more importantly, how do they get away with it? Let’s take a look.
What are natural flavors exactly? Let’s look at what the FDA says in the Code of Federal Regulations Title 21:
“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.”
So basically, “natural flavors” is an umbrella term for more or less anything that could be traced back to some sort of organic matter at some point.
What about how natural flavors are used? In the book Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, Melanie Warner writes;
“They lend cravability to foods that would otherwise be inedible slurries of corn, wheat, or soy-products like Doritos, some breakfast cereals, and energy bars. And they allow manufacturers to put less fruit into cereal bars and pie fillings…to make juices from raw materials that aren’t very fresh; and to deliver the impression that processed meats have been cooked the way you would cook them at home.”
In other words, they can turn a bland, low-quality food or combination of foods and turn it into something that tastes irresistibly good – The food industry alchemists are converting garbage into delicacies. But while manufacturers are cutting costs and increasing their margins, the ingredients they’re sneaking into their food products under the term “natural flavors” have a fair amount of drawbacks and we, the consumers, are unknowingly subject to the collateral damage.
Here are the three most important reasons why you should be on the look out for “natural” flavors and avoid them at all costs:
- They can make you overeat
Why do we tend to overeat or crave certain foods? One of the main reasons is what David Kessler, former head of the FDA and author of The End of Overeating, says is a “food carnival” in your mouth; flavors so perfectly designed that they trick your mind and body into wanting more and more. And it’s not out of sheer luck that these flavors are so perfectly craveable. Food scientists spend countless hours in laboratories trying to figure out the “bliss point” of certain foods – the perfect combinations of salt, sugar, fat and natural flavors to make food products as irresistible and addictive as possible.
But did you know these same flavors have infiltrated so-called “health foods” and “natural foods”? No aisle (save for the produce section) of any grocery store is safe. Natural flavors are used in plant-based protein powders and bars, non-dairy yogurts and milks, condiments, drinks and many more products advertised as healthy or 100% natural.
- They can trick your taste buds with MSG
MSG – and its many other analogues – are also often hidden under the umbrella of “natural flavors”. Monosodium Glutamate, otherwise known as MSG, is a flavor enhancer and can trick your taste buds into thinking that food is far more delicious than it actually is. MSG has been linked to headaches, nausea, weight gain, higher blood pressure, liver damage and even brain damage.
What’s even worse, MSG and other ingredients in natural flavors set your taste buds up with a false “flavor profile” of certain foods. For example, if you regularly consume a strawberry-flavored or chocolate-flavored processed “health” food that uses natural flavors, your can become accustomed to and even prefer those particular versions of strawberry or chocolate over the real thing! If you’re struggling to eat healthy whole foods more often, eating foods these types of manufactured flavorings will lead you and your taste buds in the wrong direction.
- They likely contain repulsive ingredients
You might remember the uproar a couple of years ago when it was discovered that Starbucks was using crushed beetles for food coloring in some of its Frappuccino products. Well, that might not be the only gross (and infuriating for vegans) hidden product in our food system. Castoreum, otherwise known as secretions from beaver anal glands, might be in some vanilla and strawberry ice cream flavorings and in certain perfumes (to be fair though, the usage of castoreum is now somewhat rare). L-Cysteine, a common flavoring in many bread products, is commonly extracted from duck feathers or, even more sickening, human hair.
Now that you know that “natural flavors” are often Trojan Horses of dangerous and gross ingredients, there’s one simple thing you can do… check the food products in your kitchen! If they contain natural flavors and you aren’t inspired to throw them out immediately, call the food manufacturers and ask them exactly what’s hiding within the natural flavors umbrella term. If they don’t give you a straight answer, you’ll know they’ve got something to hide.