“Natural” Flavor

The lists of ingredients printed on the labels of processed foods typically include a long string of unpronounceable and unappetizing chemicals and additives.  Often near the end of the list the words “natural flavor” will appear.  It looks benign and wholesome amid all the other mysterious multi-syllabic ingredients.

But what does it mean?  If you buy a bottle of “raspberry ice tea”, for example, and see that it contains “natural flavor”, it would be reasonable to assume that the tea is flavored with raspberries.  That would seem natural.

Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation contains a fascinating chapter about the “flavor” industry and how tiny amounts of “flavoring” control how processed food tastes and, ultimately, whether it will sell well.  I very highly recommend taking a few minutes to read it in its entirety HERE.

Here’s an excerpt on the subject of “natural flavor”

The 1960s were the heyday of artificial flavors. The synthetic versions of flavor compounds were not subtle, but they did not need to be, given the nature of most processed food. For the past twenty years food processors have tried hard to use only “natural flavors” in their products. According to the FDA, these must be derived entirely from natural sources— from herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables, beef, chicken, yeast, bark, roots, etc. Consumers prefer to see natural flavors on a label, out of a belief that they are healthier. The distinction between artificial and natural flavors can be somewhat arbitrary and absurd, based more on how the flavor has been made than on what it actually contains. “A natural flavor,” says Terry Acree, a professor of food science at Cornell University, “is a flavor that’s been derived with an out-of-date technology.” Natural flavors and artificial flavors sometimes contain exactly the same chemicals, produced through different methods. Amyl acetate, for example, provides the dominant note of banana flavor. When you distill it from bananas with a solvent, amyl acetate is a natural flavor. When you produce it by mixing vinegar with amyl alcohol, adding sulfuric acid as a catalyst, amyl acetate is an artificial flavor. Either way it smells and tastes the same. The phrase “natural flavor” is now listed among the ingredients of everything from Stonyfield Farm Organic Strawberry Yogurt to Taco Bell Hot Taco Sauce.

A natural flavor is not necessarily healthier or purer than an artificial one. When almond flavor (benzaldehyde) is derived from natural sources, such as peach and apricot pits, it contains traces of hydrogen cyanide, a deadly poison. Benzaldehyde derived through a different process—by mixing oil of clove and the banana flavor, amyl acetate — does not contain any cyanide. Nevertheless, it is legally considered an artificial flavor and sells at a much lower price. Natural and artificial flavors are now manufactured at the same chemical plants, places that few people would associate with Mother Nature. Calling any of these flavors “natural” requires a flexible attitude toward the English language and a fair amount of irony. 

The bottom line is that there is a marketing advantage to having “natural flavor” on the label, rather than “artificial flavor.”

The quest for natural sources for the chemical compounds had led to some interesting, and amusing, places.  Earlier this year there was a lot of buzz on the internet about an extract from beaver anal glands being used to create “natural” raspberry flavoring in processed foods.  While plenty of folks were probably skeptical of that charge, the fact of the matter is that castoreum, “harvested” from beavers, is a common food additive.  Wiki describes it this way:

Castoreum/kæsˈtɔriəm/ is the exudate from the castor sacs of the mature North American Beaver (Castor canadensis) and the European Beaver(Castor fiber). Within the zoological realm, castoreum is the yellowish secretion of the castor sac which is, in combination with the beaver’s urine, used during scent marking of territory.  Both male and female beavers possess a pair of castor sacs and a pair of anal glands located in two cavities under the skin between the pelvis and the base of the tail.  The castor sacs are not true glands (endocrine or exocrine) on a cellular level, hence references to these structures as preputial glands or castor glands are misnomers. Castor sacs are a type of scent gland.

Today, it is used as a tincture in some perfumes and as a food additive.

…In the United States, castoreum is considered to be a GRAS food additive by the Food and Drug Administration. It is often referenced simply as a “natural flavoring” in products’ lists of ingredients. While it is mainly used in both foods and beverages as part of a substitute vanilla flavour, it is less commonly used as a part of a raspberry or strawberry flavoring. The annual industry consumption is very low, around 300 pounds, whereas vanillin is over 2.6 million pounds annually.

(Contrary to the suggestion, 300 pounds of castoreum additive is not “very low” consumption, given that these “flavors” are added in minuscule quantities,  one drop being sufficient to add the flavoring to the equivalent of five swimming pools full of water in some cases.)

You have to wonder who made the discovery that the yellowish secretion of a beaver’s castor sac tastes like raspberries.  That person must have been really hungry.

Although the notion of flavoring one’s food with castoreum is pretty disgusting, no doubt there are lots of equally disgusting additives “flavoring” the processed foods which now constitute the vast majority of the American diet.

However one might describe such flavorings, “natural” is not a word that would normally come to mind.