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What’s In the “Natural” Flavors In Our Foods?

I've been reading and thinking about "natural flavors" ever since my earlier posts about food additives (April 20, 2015, August 19, 2014). What exactly are natural flavors and how are they different from artificial flavors?  And why are they even found in organic foods? The more I read, the more I want to avoid them , but it seems to be really, really hard to do so because they seem to be everywhere, even in what we think of as basic foods (e.g., butter). Bottom line: both are chemicals concocted in labs and manufactured in factories. Read labels and try to eat as many unprocessed foods as possible to avoid them.We know very little about many of them, and if they have health effects. Note that the term "natural flavors" may include many chemicals in the "flavor mixtures" (incidental additives) that don't have to be listed on the labels. Currently there are more than 2700 natural flavors being used in the USA. The following are excerpts from articles and a book published in 2015.

From CNN:   What are natural flavors, really?

Look at the food label of almost any packaged good you consume and odds are you'll spot the term "natural flavors." But have you ever wondered what this mysterious additive actually contains? The answer isn't as clear as you might think.Though natural flavors may sound better than their presumably chemical-laden alternative — artificial flavors — it turns out they are not actually all that different.

In the Environmental Working Group's Food Scores database of over 80,000 foods, "natural flavor" is the fourth most common ingredient listed on labels. The only ingredients that outrank it: salt, water and sugar. Yet, natural flavoring isn't nearly as simple as these three pantry staples."Natural and artificial flavors play an interesting role in food. They're essentially providing the taste and often they're added to make the food more appealing, or to potentially replace something that's lost through processing, storage or in some cases even from pasteurizing," says David Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. One place you'll often spot natural or artificial flavor is in orange juice; manufacturers will add faux flavor to juice after it's packaged in the plant, to ensure uniformity.

"The differentiation is really down to the origin of those molecules, whether synthetically processed in a lab or purified in a lab but from a natural source," Andrews says. Here's where it gets even muddier: Added flavoring, both natural and artificial, could contain anywhere from 50 to 100 ingredients. And all of the extra ingredients in flavors often aren't as innocent as you'd hope they would be."The mixture will often have some solvent and preservatives — and that makes up 80 to 90 percent of the volume [of the flavoring]. In the end product, it's a small amount, but it still has artificial ingredients," Andrews says. 

Ultimately, the difference between natural and artificial flavors often comes down to miniscule distinctions."Most often, as far as I could find, the actual chemicals themselves could be identical or extremely close in terms of natural versus artificial," Andrews says.For example, artificial and natural add-ins might trick you into expecting flavors out of your foods that don't exist in real life."The goal is to make a short intense flavor that quickly dissipates so you come back for more," Andrews says.

Mark Schatzker - The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor  (2015) Simon & Schuster.  Interesting book about how American food is suffering from "flavor dilution" (a result of modern conventional farming), thus manufacturers are adding more and more flavors to foods, and after eating them we may crave those foods even more (as if they were addictive). One excerpt (p. 65-66) "Exactly how much does the typical American eat? The government has no idea. The FDA doesn't track consumption, and neither does the USDA. The one organization I found that can put a number to it is a market research firm called Euromonitor International. According to their estimates, the American flavor market stands at 605 million pounds of flavoring every year . This does not include MSG and the rest of the umami brigade, which stands at 190 million pounds.) That works out to two pounds of chemical deception for every man, woman, and child."

From Environmental Working Group: EWG’S DIRTY DOZEN GUIDE TO FOOD ADDITIVES: THE FDA FAILED US

The term “natural flavor” finds its way into more than a quarter of EWG’s roster of 80,000 foods in the Food Scores database, with only salt, water and sugar mentioned more frequently on food labels. “Artificial flavors” are also very common food additives, appearing on one of every seven labels. What do these terms really mean? Good question. The truth is that when you see the word “flavor” on a food label, you have almost no clue what chemicals may have been added to the food under the umbrella of this vague term. For people who have uncommon food allergies or are on restricted diets, this can be a serious concern.

In addition to the flavor-adding chemicals themselves, flavor mixtures often contain natural or artificial emulsifiers, solvents and preservatives that are called “incidental additives,” which means the manufacturer does not have to disclose their presence on food labels. Flavoring mixtures added to food are complex and can contain more than 100 distinct substances. The non-flavor chemicals that have other functional properties often make up 80 to 90 percent of the mixture.

Consumers may be surprised to learn that so-called “natural flavors” can actually contain synthetic chemicals such as the solvent propylene glycol or the preservative BHA.  Flavor extracts and ingredients derived from genetically engineered crops may also be labeled “natural,” because the FDA has not fully defined what that term means. (Certified organic “natural flavors” must meet more stringent guidelines and cannot include synthetic or genetically engineered ingredients.)

The companies that make flavoring mixtures are often the same ones that make the fragrance chemicals in perfumes and cosmetics...EWG considers it troubling that food companies do not fully disclose their ingredients and use vague terms like “flavors.” Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food. We are also concerned that processed food makers manipulate flavors to whet people’s appetite for unhealthy foods and encourage overeating.

From The Center For Public Integrity:  Food flavor safety system a ‘black box’

Ingredients created by food companies flavor what Americans eat each day — everything from juice drinks and potato chips to ice cream and canned soups....But the organization responsible for the safety of most “natural” and “artificial” flavors that end up in foods and beverages isn’t part of the U.S. government. Rather, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Associationa secretive food industry trade group that has no in-house employees, no office of its own and a minuscule budget — serves as the de-facto regulator of the nation’s flavor additives.

The trade association, which operates with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s blessing, says that it makes research on the safety of various flavors available for public inspection. “Oh, garbage,” said Susan Schiffman, an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University who studies sweeteners. “It’s not transparent.” Public interest groups, however, share Schiffman’s frustration with the trade association. They, too, report getting stonewalled by the flavor group when requesting information about the industry’s safety determinations.

But most Americans know as little about the decidedly low-profile Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association and its safety assessments as they do about the more than 2,700 flavoring chemicals it has declared safe during the past five decades. Moreover, public interest groups say the FDA’s recent response to a Freedom of Information Act request suggests that even the government may be blind to the science behind many of those flavors.

Much is at stake: The flavor industry’s system of self-policing helps it avoid government oversight, potentially saving companies significant amounts of time and money. In Europe, by contrast, companies must have their flavors and other ingredients reviewed for safety by an independent agency funded by the European Union.The flavor industry makes its safety evaluations “behind closed doors” and then asks consumers to trust them, said Caroline Cox, research director for the Center for Environmental Health. “We just have enough experience with all kinds of toxic chemicals to know not to want to trust an evaluation if someone says, ‘Trust us, it’s all OK.’”

A Center for Public Integrity review of documents provided by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association found that four of the group’s most recent safety assessments depended largely on studies that were not published in scientific literature. Public interest groups say that is problematic because it doesn’t allow the scientific community to vouch for the industry’s safety decisions.

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