Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Nothing "Natural" About Natural Flavorings

I am a bit of an obsessive ingredient label reader. I want to know what is in the food I eat. If the label is full of ingredients that are not actual food, words I can't pronounce, or just a long slew of words, I tend to avoid it. But, reading and deciphering labels is a little more complicated than that. Companies throw in words like "natural" and "whole grain" to make people think that their products are healthy. These terms are not regulated, and therefore, don't always mean what they should. There are many other terms and ingredients I would like to go into further in later posts: "free-range", "organic", "high oleic", interesterified oils" etc. But, for now, I'd like to focus on one term that has recently been popping up everywhere: "Natural Flavorings"

There is nothing much "natural" in natural flavorings. The difference between a natural and artificial flavoring is "the method by which is was derived, but ultimately the chemical composition can be nearly identical."

Natural Flavorings are highly processed extracts added to foods to make them taste more intense. It has been common for decades to see packages that say "made with artifical flavorings" on things like fruit punch or ranch flavored chips, and "made with natural flavorings" might have shown up on the front of a juice blend. However, in the past few years, natural flavorings have been popping up in the fine print on ingredient labels everywhere. Here are some of the shocking places I have seen them:
raw turkey meat
celestial seasonings teas
organic yogurts (almost every single brand)
100% apple juice
100% grape juice
unsalted butter

This is crazy right? Doesn't butter taste enough like butter, not to need flavoring added to it?! and juice? why would 100% juice need flavor added to it to make it taste more juice-like? I think the answer is 2 fold:

1. people are used to buying more processed foods these days because they are cheap, and so companies feel like they have to make products that actually are made with natural whole ingredients, taste more intense or have a bigger "flavor profile" like their more processed counterparts. All of this goes back to the farm bill and how it subsidizes certain crops and not others, which has resulted in cheap packaged food that is mostly bad for our health.

2. because the flavorings come from "natural sources" they are still allowed to be called "natural" making them sound like they are good for our health, so people don't worry about eatting them. Just because something is "natural" does not mean it is good for you.

My sister inlaw has some pretty severe health problems and is on a very restricted diet that was really helping her colitis. One thing she has to avoid completely is chemicals. It was cooking for her that made me start to realize just how many things have natural flavoring in them, i mean raw turkey breast, seriously!!!
Click here for more info on natural vs. artificial flavorings
Click here for a definition of natural flavorings

While i was in the grocery store sneaking photographs of food labels, I walked past this wonderful example of everything that is wrong with our food system right now:
Let's just say that there is absolutely nothing "healthy" about this Healthy Bunch pack of popsicles. There is almost nothing that is actually natural in this box. It is much healthier, cheaper and tastier to make your own fruit juice popsicles or sorbet, and it takes hardly any work. Check back to this blog through the summer and you will find lots of great recipes and ideas for healthy, homemade frozen treats.


  1. Actually, I'm a food scientist and know that some ingredients are declared on a label as "Natural Flavor" when they are put in the product for a different purpose. Food companies do this because seeing "Natural Flavor" on a label is better than seeing "Extractives of Rosemary" or "Oleoresin of Rosemary" ....rosemary is a natural antimicrobial, and in my opinion is a better option than potassium sorbate or another type of chemical to retard growth of microorganisms. In the case of butter, the "Natrual Flavor" is likely a trace (less than a half percent) amount of oleoresin paprika, added for color.

    Also, what dietary restrictions tell you to avoid "all chemicals" like your sister? Does she avoid the chemical dihydrogen monoxide?

    While it's really great to be aware of food labels and see what you are eating, I hate when people demonize the food industry. Should the popsicle brand just continue selling sugary popsicles that fatten their customers? Should they just close up shop and fire all their employees because, after all, popsicles aren't that healthy?

    The food industry is exactly that - an industry. It's always going to be driven by dollars first, which is why we all must educate ourselves, and then VOTE with our DOLLARS!

  2. Hi Tara, thank you so much for reading the blog and for your comments. I would agree with you that using a rosemary extract, or even Vitamin E tocopherols as a preservative is better than using potassium sorbate. Very often those ingredients are listed as such and are followed by "to preserve freshness" in the ingredient label. The ingredients I am talking about are certainly put there to enhance flavoring, not for coloring with is also generally labeled as such,ex: "beta carotene for color".

    I am not demonizing the food industry as you say. I was addressing some of the problems with our food system, which is connected, but different from the food industry. The US Farm Bill subsidizes certain crops, such as corn and soy, making them extremely cheap to add to packaged foods. This is why we have High Fructose Corn Syrup in our food where there once was sugar, and has contributed to the existing food market where highly processed unhealthy packaged foods are less expensive than fresh produce and other whole-unprocessed foods.

    As a chef, mother, food activist and as a blogger I try to encourage people to cook and eat with real food ingredients: fruits and vegetables, grains, beans, meat, herbs, spices etc. There is so much packaged food in the grocery store, and very little of it is actually good for us. By labeling the sugarfree totally artificial popsicles as "Healthy Bunch" the company encourages people to think that they are "healthy" and good for them to eat as part of their regular diet, which they are not. Just like "fat free marshmallows" and "100 calorie pack cookies and chips" are not actually good for us.

    I am not a saint when it comes to what I eat. I like marshmallows, and candy, chips and burgers. I just make them a very small part of my diet, and when I make choices about what to purchase, i think about the ingredients that are in it and imagine myself putting those things into my body. When i do that, it is often easy to put down the package and think about making a better food choice.

    And, yes, my sister in-law, despite her severe nutritional restrictions, is allowed to drink water.

  3. I read all labels very carefully - I am a Type I diabetic, and if I don't know what's in my food, I will put my health at risk. That being said, I'm grateful for the sugar free popsicles as well as other sugar free/Splenda products available. Everyone deserves a treat once in a while. A homemade popsicle from fruit juices with all of the naturally occurring sugars would need a large dose of insulin and I would probably still have a high blood sugar reading anyway. I make them once in a while treats, and I don't feel so deprived. I use fresh foods whenever possible, and minimally to no processed foods as much as I can. I try not to have "absolutes" in meal planning - but to make the best choices as much as possible. I enjoyed reading the blog.

    1. have you tried Stevia as a sweetener? it is a plant that adds sweet without raising the glycemic indexes. and it's good!

  4. Yes Laura, thank you for checking out my blog! Of course if you have diabetes, there is a need for some sugar free treats. My father is diabetic and would agree with you for sure! If you cook with whole foods you probably also know about agave and stevia which have low glycemic indexes. It is great that you eat mostly fresh and minimally processed foods, and read labels to know what you are eating! I took this picture of the popsicles when I was walking through the grocery store, and the "Healthy Bunch" name just caught my eye, and seemed so absurd and embodied so much about our food culture that I had to post it. I eat the occasional regular store bought popsicle myself,but I don't think for a minute that it is "healthy". Thank you for reading, and sharing your experiences!

  5. Hi=) I was looking up 'natural flavoring' in unsalted butter, when I came across your blog. I have to be very careful what I cook for my husband, as he is following the diet for ulcerative colitus.I was concerned about that being in his butter.It's all so confusing to me..I'm wondering if 'oleoresin paprika' is harmful to him.( as Tara mentioned) Guess I have some research to do =S Aside from his disease, I also believe firmly in eating fresh veggies & fruit & meat & avoiding (as much as possible) processed foods. Enjoyed your blog, by the way=)

  6. I have colon surgeries that has left me with dietary issues and recently have had a reaction to what can only be the challenge unsalted butter. I have to get foods that do not contain certain chemicals - all the sneaky types of modified food starches, corn syrups, corn starch, caramel color and more. They all have one thing in common - sulfite. And hydrogenated oils but I'm not sure if that's related.... I purchased it because I thought unsalted butter was wholesome. I guess not. I saw later that it has natural flavorings. I saw another site that says that could include sulfites for shelf life and that it wouldn't have to be listed. I'm so disappointed in the food industry. It is such a horrible thing to live like I do, checking labels and suffering when it goes wrong. I get it, for most people it's not a real problem. But we should all have the right to know exactly what's in our food.

  7. Paprika oleoresin is a soluble extract from the capsicum annum fruit and used as a coloring agent in food products. Paprika oleoresin is mainly used for poultry feed. It gives the darker yellow appearance to meat and egg yolks.