Hard to Swallow: The Truth About Natural Flavours

Look up “natural flavour meaning” in your favourite search engine. (Go ahead, we’ll wait.) Regardless if you Googled or Binged, hundreds of articles pop up with titles like “Natural Flavors: Should You Eat Them”, “Are ‘Natural Flavors’ Really Natural?” and “The ugly truth about ‘natural flavoring’”. 

You don’t have to be a food scientist to quickly realize there are a lot of questions — and concerns — about natural flavours.

Fortunately, we have answers.

What Exactly Are Natural Flavours? 

You’d think the definition of “natural flavours” would be simple. But as you can tell by some of those Googled articles above — and “natural flavours” seemingly always in quotation marks —  pinpointing a definitive description can be a jungle of words and double speak. Even our governments can’t agree.

According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the term nature or natural is “often misused on labels and in advertisements. Labels and advertisements should not convey the impression that ‘Nature’ has, by some miraculous process, made some foods nutritionally superior to others or has engineered some foods specially to take care of human needs.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says: “The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means 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.

Derived flavoring constituents. Sounds healthy. 

But no matter what side of the border you’re on, it’s obvious the term natural flavours can be open to a great deal of interpretation and manipulation. The end result? A lab-produced product filled with additives and preservatives that’s quite, dare we say it, unnatural.

What Goes Into Making Natural Flavours? 

Natural flavours
are frequently spotted on the ingredient lists of the packaged foods we buy. In fact, they’re the fourth-most common ingredient listed after salt, water, and sugar. But how exactly are they made.

For a fascinating (and frightening) look into the highly secretive business of creating natural flavours, watch the 60 Minutes exposé, “The Flavorists”. The story delves into how most of the wrong items we eat comes from processed foods — basically anything in a bottle, box, or can — and that the majority of these processed foods are artificially or naturally flavoured. 

In addition to clips of super samplers in search of the next trendy taste, 60 Minutes shows how flavour molecules are extracted from real foods, and then replicated with chemicals to create a flavour so addictive, you can’t resist. (Yes, the flavouring industry is the great enabler of the food processing business, which depends on it to create a craving for everything from sodas to soups.) 

Naturally, legendary journalist Morley Safer has a few choice remarks, including this one: “All flavours are combinations of chemicals. Artificial flavours are largely manmade. Natural flavours come from nature, but not necessarily from what the label implies. For example, strawberry and vanilla flavour can come from the gland in a beaver’s backside.” 

Beaver butt glands. Sounds delicious.

Watching the process of taking real foods and manipulating them with mysterious additives, preservatives, and solvents is both eye-opening and a bit stomach-churning. Surely, consuming chemicals and non-labelled ingredients like beaver butt glands can’t be healthy for you, can it? Read on.

What Effects Do Natural Flavours Have on Your Health?

At the beginning of the 60 Minutes story, we see flavour industry scientists on camera saying, “In our fruit flavours, we want a burst in the beginning, and maybe a finish that doesn’t linger too much, so that you want more of it. You don’t want a little linger, because you’re not going to eat more of it if it lingers.”

To which Safer quickly responds, “Ahh, so I see, it’s got to be a quick fix, and then have more. But that suggests something else. Which is called addiction. You’re trying to create an addictive taste.” The scientist’s response? “It’s a good word."

Generally speaking, though, “addictive” is NOT a good word, especially when it comes to natural flavours. An increased consumption of addictive, lab-produced foods can lead to increased cravings of foods higher in calories, fat, and sodium — all of which elevate a multitude of health risks. And if you have any food allergies, read labels carefully. Natural flavours can include common allergens that aren’t required to be listed.

One more important thing to consider is this nugget from The Washington Post story, “What does ‘natural flavors’ really mean?”:

“Many of the chemicals that make up natural flavors fall under a category called ‘generally recognized as safe,’ or GRAS. An estimated 3,000 chemical food additives are in this category, yet this does not mean that these chemicals have been widely studied and approved by the FDA. Food companies do not need to disclose the ingredients of a natural flavor if all of the ingredients, which can be up to 100 in one flavor, fall into the GRAS category.”

The Washington Post story continues. “Still, many of the chemicals are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so we don’t really know the impact that years of consuming these additives will have on the body.”

So, how do we know what food and beverages are truly safe?

Why choose "natural flavours" when you could have real ingredients? 

Be a Natural Born Leader

The best way to keep away from all of these potentially harmful chemicals and preservative pitfalls is to avoid products that include added sugar, artificial flavouring, and yes, natural flavours. Try to consume a diet of whole foods and beverages that are locally produced and harvested — beverages just like Viveau.

Viveau is flavoured from the orchard. This means it’s made using only two ingredients: real fruit + lightly sparkling mineral water from a verified water source. Together, they deliver full-bodied taste and nutrients — minus chemically flavoured substances, mysterious ingredients, and addictive materials. 

Simple, fresh, and from the earth. Just the way Mother Nature intended.

And now, a question for you: Do you prefer your food and beverages to come from the orchard or from the lab? Let us know @drinkviveau. 

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