"When I think about the most luxurious and exquisite meals I have had, visions of simple food made from a few natural ingredients are what most excite me." - Mark Hyman
Maybe you’ve already noticed, but you don’t see “natural _____ flavor,” “natural flavors,” or “_____ flavor” among our ingredients. We use only whole, minimally processed ingredients because they taste better, are better for the planet, and are better for our health. We don’t talk about this often, but when I noticed “natural [insert name of a real food] flavor” listed on another brand’s packaging recently, knowing that this brand touts its quality and sustainability, it felt like the right time to explain why we stick to whole ingredients only.
A couple of examples:
- In our Maple Cinnamon Peanut & Pecan Butter, we use only whole pure maple from a New England maple grove we know and trust. We do not use “Natural Maple Flavor.”
- In our Fiji Ginger Almond Butter, we use only whole chunks of crystallized ginger grown by a cooperative of farmers on the island of Fiji, not “Natural Ginger Flavor.”
We humans have many faults, but we’re a creative bunch when it comes to making our foods delicious. For thousands of years, we’ve been using spices, heat, cold, fermentation, other forms of food preparation to alter the flavor and nutrition of our sustenance. When we became more adept at chemical engineering, however, we started to bend and even completely change the definition of “natural” as it applies to the foods we eat. In fact, there is now a multi-billion-dollar industry based on replicating the tastes and textures of naturally occurring flavors. Unfortunately, the flavor industry is barely regulated, and their “natural” products represent an array of potential health risks, as well as a shameful lack of transparency.
FLAVOR INDUSTRY HISTORY
Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation,” found that human-made flavor additives were used mainly in baked goods, candies and sodas until the 1950s, when sales of processed food skyrocketed. The invention of machines capable of detecting volatile gases at low levels dramatically increased the number of flavors that could be created from chemical compounds. By the 1960s, the American flavor industry was creating flavors to provide the taste for thousands of new foods. “Today’s sophisticated spectrometers, gas chromatographs, and headspace vapor analyzers,” writes Schlosser, “provide a detailed map of a food’s flavor components, detecting chemical aromas in amounts as low as one part per billion. The chemical that provides the dominant flavor of bell pepper can be tasted in amounts as low as .02 parts per billion; one drop is sufficient to add flavor to five average size swimming pools.
WHAT ARE "NATURAL FLAVORS?"
According to the FDA, “natural flavors” are those that derive their aroma or flavor chemicals from plant or animal sources, including fruit, meat, fish, spices, herbs, roots, leaves, buds or bark that are distilled, fermented, or otherwise manipulated in a lab. This definition is designed to differentiate them from “artificial flavors,” which use human-engineered chemicals to give a product its flavor or aroma. I use “product” intentionally here, because the product need not be a food. Ever seen a “Vanillaroma” car air freshener, described as a “creamy mix of vanilla, coconut, and sugarcane”? They look harmless enough, and some smell pretty good, but there is no real vanilla, coconut, or sugarcane involved. In fact, the scent is created with Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which are synthetic chemicals that can stay suspended in air. The EPA lists several possible adverse effects of exposure to VOCs including headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage, cancer, and more.
“NATURAL FLAVORS” & FOOD
Getting back to food, there is a notable loophole in the federal code. For “non-organic” foods (made with less than 70% organic material), the regulations allow dozens of ingredients like preservatives and solvents to make up chemicals marketed as “natural” flavors. Due to this loophole and the wide berth given to makers of “natural” flavors, scientists at the Environmental Working Group state that “there does not seem to be much of a difference between natural and artificial flavors.”
Food businesses rightfully must list all of the ingredients on their product packaging, while flavor manufacturers do not have to disclose their ingredients because they are protected from having to disclose their ingredients to the public. This is obtained through citing The Uniform Trade Secrets Act. The flavor industry argues that the chemistry that goes into their formulations are “trade secrets.”
Flavor producers can use emulsifiers, preservatives, synthetic solvents, petroleum-based ingredients, irradiated chemical solids, and other additives to a flavor that qualifies as natural under this current system. They do all this while using the words “natural” and “all-natural” to describe their products. The distinction between “natural” and “artificial” is based more on how flavors are made than on what they actually contain. “Amyl acetate, for example, provides the dominant note of banana flavor,” writes Schlosser. “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.”
What effect do all of these “natural flavors” and “flavors” have on our health? There has been paltry research in this area, so we do not know. Since it is legal for a company to hide the source of its “natural flavors,” it is virtually impossible to track the real impact of these chemicals, natural or not.
Thankfully, since food companies do need to list the presence of these chemical flavors, they can be avoided by reading labels and choosing whole foods. When you read our labels, that’s all you’ll see.