Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What is a Natural Flavor?

What is natural? What is artificial? Does it even matter?

Paul Bass is suing supplement company Nature Made. He claims that he was tricked into believing their synthetic Vitamin E pills were made from natural sources.

Nature Made?
The issue here is one of a deceptive brand. Having the words "Nature Made" across every product would lead you to believe that the product came from natural sources. The Nutrisuplaw blog goes onto explain the differences between natural and synthetic Vitamin E.

What is Natural Flavoring?
This leads to an interesting question regarding the word natural. On many food labels, you will find an ingredient called "natural flavor". What exactly is a natural flavor?

According to the US Code of Federal Regulations*, a natural flavor or flavoring is:

...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.

Eric Schlosser, in his book Fast Food Nation, makes this statement:

Consumers prefer to see natural flavors on a label, out of a belief that they are more healthful. Distinctions between artificial and natural flavors can be arbitrary and somewhat absurd, based more on how the flavor has been made than on what it actually contains. (via Truthseeker)

Schlosser claims that it is an issue of extraction process rather than substance.

A natural flavor is not necessarily more healthful 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 by mixing oil of clove and 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.

What is natural or artificial may not necessarily give us a clue as to the quality of the food. Eat Rhubarb leaves and you will get sick. If you have an allergic disposition then any number of natural foods may potentially be harmful allergens.

How Complicated Should It Be?
Many food labels require you to have a degree in chemistry in order to understand what is in the food. Most of us know Sodium chloride (salt) - but what about diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono-diglycerides?

Do we need to understand every component in a food? How on earth do we wade through the overwhelming amount of nutritional information and determine what is healthful and what is harmful?

*In order to read the regulations for flavorings - you need to go to the US CFR site, and search for the term "natural flavor". The first document returned will have the appropriate information.


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