The Unnatural All Natural

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When is all natural unnatural? Many food companies are currently taking advantage of the fact that there is no standard or legal definition of the term “natural” in food production and are using the label “natural flavors” in place of their reality: “fake flavors.” Even premium and natural food retailers are being fooled.

Anyone can use the FDA-approved and vague term “natural flavors” to indicate “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.”

This means that lime tortilla chips can contain no lime, a banana pie can be made with no bananas, or an organic vanilla yogurt can have no vanilla. There is an FDA rule that in this case the label must contain the word “flavor” after the ingredient that doesn’t exist. You’ll notice “flavored creme” is written right under “cream cheese” on the Red Velvet Oreos package for example; much smaller, but still right next to it. Brookside is going the right route by labeling front and center: “Pomegranate Flavor,” but how many consumers realize the meaning? (Note that in this case the product actually does contain some pomegranate and they weren’t required to use the word “flavor.”) But many companies either leave out the word “flavor,” violating FDA regulations, or hide it so it’s not at all obvious.

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Take, for example, Tostitos “Hint of Lime” tortilla chips, which you may notice doesn’t quite taste like lime; that’s because it probably doesn’t have any. Using fresh squeezed lime juice would decrease the shelf life or freeze drying then grinding a lime to powder would be too time consuming to do, and the flavor would be too subtle. So many companies actually use citric acid to simulate a lime flavor, which could be extracted from any number of plants. Manufacturers may also add a minuscule amount of an ingredient to get away with it. You’ll notice that on the Tostitos bag, the word lime is nice and large and the word flavor is barely noticeable in the bottom left corner. In the ingredients list: “natural flavors (including natural lime flavor).” The flavor name may actually be a logical statement: there’s a hint of lime here, but the real limes are somewhere else. Or, they could be referring to the mineral lime.

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Fake the Cake

Here is the ingredient list from Harris Teeter’s Banana Cream Pie. Never mind that lime is a flavor variation of a tortilla chip, but if you buy a banana cream pie, wouldn’t you expect to find banana in it? Many food producers don’t like to use real bananas because they turn brown when they oxidize which isn’t pretty. Plus fake flavoring is cheaper. Companies are not required to disclose what the natural flavors are made from because like listing “spices” in place of “cinnamon, anise, and cloves,” they can claim it’s a trade secret. It’s also possible this label has a typo and was meant to say “0% Banana Cream Pie.”

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It’s Just Semantics

Fake flavors are even hiding in so-called premium products found in natural food stores like Whole Foods that actually ban artificial colors and flavors. How is a fake flavor not an artificial flavor? Take a look at this Horizon Organic “vanilla” yogurt. There is no mention that this is actually “vanilla flavor” at all. But wait, there’s one cause to celebrate: the vanilla flavor is organic! Fake vanilla, vanillin, can be made from from bacterial fermentation of corn or rice bran and still be considered a natural ingredient.

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Don’t Fake it if You Can’t Make it

The point here is not whether you approve of real, fake, natural, or chemical flavors, or the related health claims. The point is that if a product very clearly claims to contain a primary ingredient that carries the product flavor and the product does not contain any of that ingredient, the FDA should mandate that it should be very clearly labeled as such with the word “flavor” written equally as large as the ingredient. Or better yet, require a statement like “this flavored product does not contain any real [vanilla].” In addition, natural food stores that pride themselves on banning certain ingredients, including artificial flavors, need to acknowledge the simple fact that “natural flavors” listed in lieu of real flavors is 100% artificial.

All Apinya Thai Food Co. products contain no fake flavors or colors, including “natural flavors” listed as an ingredient. When we say banana anywhere, we mean banana, period.

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