Artificial and natural flavours


Do you know why fast and processed food, from french fries, hamburgers, ice cream and chicken fingers to microwave popcorn, flavoured yogurts, baked goods, breakfast cereals, fruit drinks and beer all taste so good? The chemical wizardry behind the artificial and natural flavours added to the processed food adds back the flavour that was taken away during the processing and storing of the foods. The long list of chemicals that make up the flavours is hidden behind the words “artificial” or “natural” flavours. As long as the chemicals are on the GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe), the FDA does not require the ingredients of the additives to be listed. The items on the GRAS list have not necessarily been tested for their safety – the only way to get something removed is through proof of harm. (That said, one would think that there would be enough evidence of harm to have aspartame removed from the GRAS list, but it is still there.)  Vegetarians are unsuccessfully demanding to know whether or not a flavouring or colouring in a food is from an animal source.  Appropriate labels would also assist people in avoiding allergic reactions.  Frequently the same colours (like titanium dioxide) used in foods are also used in cosmetics and in oil and house paints.

Our sense of taste is actually quite crude – we can only discern sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and astringent tastes, whereas our sense of smell is extremely sensitive, and is believed to be responsible for up to 90 percent of the flavour we taste. When we chew our food, volatile gases are released which we smell.  Complex combinations of volatile compounds make up the tastes in the foods, with one compound being the dominant one, and others rounding out the flavour desired. If you want something to taste like marshmallows, you add ethyl-3-hydroxybutanoate for example.  The number of chemicals that make up the typical artificial strawberry flavour in a strawberry milkshake is about 50, yet all those ingredients will be hidden under the term "artificial flavour". If we don’t really know if singly these chemicals are safe, how can we be assured that combinations of them are safe?

The idea that “natural flavours” are any healthier than “artificial flavours” is probably stretching the truth a bit, even though something designated as “natural” must come entirely from an herb, spice, vegetable, fruit, meat etc. Whether the chemical ethyl-2-methyl butyrate that provides the flavour of apples is separated out of an apple in a chemistry lab using a chemical process, or is created artificially through a different chemical process, the final product is the same, but one can be labeled “natural” and the other is labeled “artificial”. These natural flavours cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered “natural”, and they are certainly not healthier nor more pure than the synthetic flavour despite their higher price. And whether “natural” or “artificial” they are made in the same chemical plants. “Flavourists” are the scientists that design the flavours in our foods by mixing these chemical concoctions.

These food technologists also consider eye appeal, mouth-feel, textures, crunchiness, gumminess, spreadability, softness, juiciness etc. when adding chemicals to the food, as these properties are vital to the success of the product being marketed.  Their work gets no mention by the processed food companies that rely on them for the commercial success of their food.  When McDonalds was forced to switch from beef tallow to vegetable oil in order to cook their fries, they had a problem, as the beef tallow was key to the special McDonald’s french fry taste. So flavourists blended the appropriate chemicals to give that same taste to the fries. it would be wrong to think that the flavour of the fries is actually due to what happens in the kitchens of McDonalds!  (Or that the flavour of any fast food is due to the kitchen it was prepared in!) These flavours were concocted, put into the food, and shipped out to their clients by huge, secretive, chemical plants such as International Flavors & Fragrances, Givaudan, Haarmann & Reimer, Elan Chemical, Flavor Dynamics and Frutarom, many along the eastern seaboard of the States.

This information comes from the fascinating book, Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser, about how fast food has entirely changed how we farm, how we live, and how we eat. Do read it – it will motivate you to stop eating fast food!  I want to close with a quote from his book, where Eric Schlosser is sampling various artificial flavours. “Before placing the strips of paper before my nose, I closed my eyes. Then I inhaled deeply, and one food after another was conjured from the glass bottles. I smelled fresh cherries, black olives, sauteed onions, and shrimp. Grainer’s most remarkable creation took me by surprise. After closing my eyes, I suddenly smelled a grilled hamburger. The aroma was uncanny, almost miraculous. It smelled like someone in the room was flipping burgers on a hot grill. But when I opened my eyes, there was just a narrow strip of white paper and a smiling flavorist.”

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Schosser, Eric Fast Food Nation Harper Perennial, New York NY, 2001

Copyright 2007 Vreni Gurd

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