This post is another in the Dear Davey H series, in which I answer health and happiness questions of enquiring minds. In this installment, I answer the question, what’s the difference between natural flavors and artificial flavors?
Natural Flavors – Dear Davey H
Most Dear Davey H questions come via two channels on which I spend way too much time, email or social media. This one came to me during a killing-of-time conversation at a venue in which I’ve spent way too much time, an airport. A particularly horrible airport, Fort Lauderdale (FLL). An especially horrible airport when you’re trying to high-tail it out of town due to an approaching Cat 4 hurricane (Hurricane Matthew). An even more horrible airport when the air conditioning isn’t working. And the last place a nutrition-conscious person wants to be at dinner time.
Among FLL’s lack-of-charms, is its dearth of places to eat. Maybe they’re assuming that the throngs of passengers fresh from their cruise ship all-you-can-eat buffets are desensitized to legitimate enjoyment of food.
In cases like these, your best bet is to BYO (i.e., Bring Your Own, as opposed to the airport code for Bonito, Brazil although I’m sure BYO airport beats the heck out of FLL). For the lack of that, you head to the airport sundry shop, bypass the bags of bacon-and-ranch-flavored-chocolate-covered-cheese-puffs, and look for some nuts or other protein source (Mantra #2, Eat Protein in Every Meal).
One of my traveling companions opted for a prepackaged sandwich with a side of Oberto Spicy Buffalo Style Chicken Strips. With a sense of curiosity that would make a health and happiness coach proud, that companion examined the ingredient list of the chicken jerky and asked:
“Why does an ingredient list include both natural flavorings and artificial flavorings?”
Oh, silly traveling companion! Don’t you know better? Don’t you know that I’m one of those guys who when asked the time, will tell you the time, and then go on to tell you that carrageenan (another ingredient in your chicken jerky) is a type of seaweed that is often added to foods to improve their texture and can cause inflammation, stomach ulcers and even cancer?
Natural Flavors vs. Artificial Flavors
Let’s start at the very beginning which I’m told is a very good place to start. Many people assume natural is better than artificial. Followers of the Karma Sense Media Empire know that the word “natural,” when it appears as a claim somewhere on a food label, is meaningless. But, when that same word appears in the ingredient list and is immediately followed by any variation of the word “flavor,” it takes on a specific meaning.
Natural Flavors – What are They?
The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR, as opposed to the airport code for Caen, France although I’m sure CFR airport beats the heck out of FLL) is the compilation of rules and regulations published in the Federal Register. The Federal Register is the official journal of the federal government of the United States (motto, “All the ‘Albeits’ Fit to Print”).
Back in the day when Congress actually used to do stuff, they would debate the regulations for many things including what needs to go on an ingredient label. One thing they obsessed over was a definition of “natural flavor” and here is what they came up with:
“a natural flavor is 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, (hey) bud (let’s party)*, 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.”
WTF (as in WTF and not as in West African Air Transport)?!?
In a nutshell, the term “natural,” when used to modify the term “flavor” means anything derived from a plant, animal or nutshell. Sounds pretty innocuous, “ey?” he said in honor of Canadian Thanksgiving. Certainly as compared to…
Artificial Flavors – What are They?
The term “artificial,” when used to modify the term “flavor” means anything derived from stuff other than plants or animals. If we were playing twenty questions, that would leave minerals. But we’re not playing twenty questions. We’re playing Dear Davey H.
Seriously, artificial flavors are made from rocks and any other powders, liquids, gasses or pink goos that plant workers synthesize in labs all over the world but primarily in New Jersey.
Natural Flavors vs. Artificial Flavors – Do Natural Flavors Win?
Chemically, natural and artificial flavors are usually very similar. Artificial flavors are better regulated and much more pure. Take apple flavor for instance. A natural apple flavor may be extracted from an actual apple. Depending on the process, the resulting apple flavor may also include the apple seeds. Apple seeds contain amygdalin, a substance that your body converts to cyanide. Cyanide is poison. You’d have to eat an awful lot of apple cores to accumulate sufficient cyanide in your body. But the natural flavors in Apple Jacks could theoretically contain enough.
Fear not, you lovers of Apple Jacks. More than likely the natural flavors in your favorite cereal have no kinship to an actual apple. You see, natural flavors don’t have to come from the plant or animal you’re trying to simulate. For this example, we can use vanilla flavor.
Real vanilla is expensive. Big food companies like to replace real vanilla flavor with fake vanilla flavor. Fake vanilla flavor can be artificial or natural. Chemically they’d be very similar. Factories synthesize artificial vanilla flavor using a small and pristine collection of chemicals. Natural vanilla flavor sometimes comes from an extract called “castoreum.” Castoreum is a natural flavor, because as we now know, it comes from a plant or animal. Since real vanilla is a plant, one would expect castoreum to come from a plant. One would not expect castoreum to come from a beaver. One might hope that castoreum didn’t come from a beaver’s anus. But alas, hope is not a strategy. Castoreum comes from two glands adjacent to the beaver’s butt.
What Would Davey H Do?
Duly armed with all the information you need, which do you prefer? Flavors derived from chemicals made in a clean room or flavors derived from a beaver’s hindquarters? It’s your call.
Most of the time, food companies opt for “natural flavor” to take advantage of consumers who lack karma sense. Big food knows that natural flavors benefit from an irrational halo effect. But the distinction between the two is negligible. It’s similar to saying the Oberto Buffalo Style Chicken Strips sold at the grocery store are natural. The Oberto Buffalo Style Chicken Strip sold at the airport sundry shop are artificial.
But perhaps this twenty-second video explains the distinction best.
Me? I’ll opt for neither. You never know in any given circumstance which will be worse, artificial or natural flavors. I went for the bag of nuts. They’re lower in protein but also lower in ingredients.
But There Was More Mansplaining To Do
Apparently, the beaver butt story wasn’t enough to satisfy my traveling companion. In an act of genuine curiosity or an act of initiating another thousand word tirade from yours truly, he wanted to know:
When containing both natural AND artificial flavors in a product, why not drop the pretense of the modifiers and just say flavorings?
I assumed he was trolling in hopes the lack of air conditioning and constant talking would cause me to faint and didn’t take the bait. I simply explained that it’s the same reason the product that contains both vinegar powder and dried vinegar lists them separately. It’s the same reason that my bag of nuts listed almonds, cashews and peanuts separately instead of just using the blanket term nuts.
Nice try, traveling companion. But you just tossed an air ball. Because..
There Was So Much More To Obsess Over On The Oberto Label
- WTF are “Real ingredients?”
- Are those silhouettes in the act of physical activity some kind of subliminal messaging to make me think this crap is good for me?
- Why can you claim “Nothing Artificial” when you have artificial flavor?
- Gluten Free? We expect meat to be gluten free. This is an empty claim.
- No Hormones? It’s illegal to feed chicken hormones. This too is an empty claim.
- Carrageenan natural? Yes. Safe? As previously explained, no. It’s a common ingredient in ice cream and milk alternatives (e.g. almond). The higher quality producers are removing it from their formulas.
Perhaps the most interesting observation is that most people will choose chicken jerky over beef because of a perceived health benefit. And I know from experience that this traveling companion prefers a good steak over chicken any day. But if you do a head to head comparison of Oberto beef jerky vs. these chicken strips, you see that they have the same amount of calories. Furthermore, the beef jerky has more protein, less sodium and fewer calories from fat. In the battle of two evils, Oberto beef jerky is slightly ahead when it comes to most health goals.
And so ends another installment of Dear Davey H.
Yours in good karma,
*items in parenthesis added to see if you were paying attention.