Artificial flavors have long been ingredients from which we know to steer clear, or embrace moderately at best; but natural flavors (surprisingly the fourth most common ingredient listed on food labels), have a more innocuous presence … one that makes us feel like it must be okay because it’s just that — natural!
“Natural flavors,” however, are anything but. In celebration of a technicality set forth by the FDA, natural flavors must contain a minimum amount of any “natural” ingredient, which could mean leaves, twigs, yeast, or another ‘naturally occurring’ substance. It does not, however, have to contain any of the thing it attempts to mimic. It is then treated, enhanced and processed in a lab until a nearly perfect imitation is obtained. These flavorings are designed in a hurry, made cheaply, and what’s more, they may even promote cravings and mess with our metabolism.
But aren’t they regulated?
Requiring a molecule of something natural is where the FDA’s mandate on the term “natural flavors” ends. There are few regulations for food companies that use the term “natural,” which gives them leniency to use it on almost everything. So, they do! Ingredients in natural flavors can be lumped together and cited as just that on labels, but it’s what’s inside that really counts. They can contain all the things with which they were processed — preservatives, solvents, genetically altered crops and emulsifiers. Natural flavors are just as, if not more, synthetic than their artificial counterparts. Shockingly, artificial flavors are more heavily scrutinized by the FDA and are produced under tighter laboratory conditions.
Perhaps even more appalling, some flavors’ sources will blow your mind. Are you a vanilla lover? How about raspberry? How someone ever discovered that the secretions from a beaver’s behind, castoreum, would enhance these “natural” flavors is beyond me, but that’s what they use. Yummm. As an ex-almond latte addict, I was surprised to hear that benzalehyde and benzoic acid used in almond flavoring can actually be toxic and are lethal in large doses.
Have you ever bitten into banana bread that tastes like the cartoon version of a banana? Have you tasted strawberry candy that reminds you of the reddest strawberry ripened in the height of summer, only to be left with an acrid aftertaste?
Food manufacturers use (not so) “natural” flavors for a few different reasons: Not only are they cheaper than fruit, they’re easier to use than the real thing. They establish taste uniformity, which food companies love, not to mention that they keep us coming back for more … and more, and more. Without the added flavors, we wouldn’t be caught starving on a deserted island with that particular food in our clutches. Would you sidle up to a bar and order a club soda with nine teaspoons of sugar? Without the added flavors, that’s exactly what soda pop is. Natural flavors end up in the strangest places, including flavored yogurts, applesauce, cereals, baby food, and, perhaps most prolifically, flavored waters.
What’s the bubbly?Drinking more water is arguably on everyone’s “To Do” list, and food companies have made it easier for us to do just that by making water fun again; by making it taste fruity without strawberry chunks floating up to meet our lips or the calories and sugar that accompany other, sweeter hydration options.
My first encounter with a La Croix was filled with a giddy excitement. At a friend’s house, as if in a convenience store, we were greeted with a wall of different flavored soda waters that lined the refrigerator from one side to the other.
What was this delightful stuff? Zero calories? No artificial sweeteners? This was totally up my alley! My husband took a “pamplemousse,” or grapefruit, and I helped myself to my all-time favorite — lime. My taste buds basked in delight — my water problems were over! Here I had found a fun, froofy drink without the added froof. Was it too good to be true?
It is too good to be true. Tastebuds are a gateway to our brain, and, like sugar, when they register as having received something — say like grapefruity water — our brain expects to be able to process something grapefruity.
Food desires and cravings are primitive — they’re more nuanced than we understand. We may think that willpower is the answer, but it’s deeper than that — we are instinctively drawn to certain foods for certain reasons. Flavors act as cues that tell us where our bodies can get the nutrients we need. Scientific studies support this statement, which means that our bodies are more incredible than we ever thought.
So, does that mean that when you crave a banana, you’re actually in need of potassium? Perhaps, says Mark Schatzker, author of “The Dorito Effect.” He recaps a study done on sheep who were made to be devoid in phosphorus. They were fed coconut flavored feed at the same time they were given phosphorus, but fed maple flavored feed without it. They chose the coconut over maple. Perhaps they just liked the island feel over the New England chill, but this was disproven when another group were fed the maple with the phosphorus and the coconut without it. Again, they chose the food that correlated with the phosphorus — something they desperately needed.
This just proves that not only are we what we eat, but that there’s so much more than determination that goes into putting down that potato chip. Nature’s design is so intricate and perfect, that anytime we try to trick our body and give it something that tastes like it has calories without the actual nutrients from those calories, the joke may just be on us. Ultimately, “natural flavors” could lead to metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance.
The overall solution to this issue is to eat real food, with fewer ingredients as often as possible. If we have to open a box or bag, chances are (unless they’re greens,) it contains things we can’t pronounce — and steering clear of those items just might be a great start!
Whole Wheat (but still yum) Banana Bread
Makes 1 loaf
Preheat oven to 350°F
1 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 tspn baking soda
1/2 tspn baking powder
1/2 tspn salt
1 egg (I substitute 2 tablespoons plain whole milk yogurt)
1/2 c. sugar (raw turbinado recommended)
3 ripe bananas
1/2 tspn vanilla extract
1/4 c. apple sauce
1/2 tspn cinnamon
In one bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.
In another bowl, combine yogurt (or egg), sugar, banana, vanilla, apple sauce & cinnamon.
Combine flour with wet ingredients a third at a time, fold in. Bake for one hour.