'Natural flavors' aren't always the real thing NUTRITION

September 11, 1991|By Edward R. Blonz, Ph.D.

The making of designer flavors has become a high-tech science involving chemists with complex, secret formulas -- all designed to fool your palate into thinking you've got ahold of the real thing.

These days, there's an obvious desire by food marketers to have "natural" or "no artificial anything" on their labels.

But how much strawberry is actually present in a food made with "natural strawberry flavor, with other natural flavors"?

Although there's probably a pinch of flavor from the actual fruit, it's likely the bulk of the strawberry taste comes from other ingredients, such as bois de rose, a natural oil from the chipped wood of the tropical rosewood tree.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations, you need to have at least some of the actual strawberry to call a food strawberry-flavored.

It's unclear, though, exactly how much strawberry is needed, or whether anyone pays attention to the flavor formula as long as it tastes like strawberries.

And by definition, the flavor can be called natural if all the ingredients come from natural sources. This is in contrast with an artificial flavor, where the flavor components are made synthetically.

Combinations of exotic ingredients, indicated on a package label by the innocent-looking "natural flavors," or "with other natural flavors," have become commonplace in today's processed foods.

And the hunt continues for new sources of natural flavors. But why not use the pure flavor from the genuine article?

Although this direct approach might seem preferable, it has proven to be impractical on any large scale.

As flavors go, the natural ones are typically weak in flavor strength. Many are unstable and break down during processing or storage. In addition, natural flavors may interact with other ingredients in the recipe, or even with the packaging material.

There's also a question of uniformity. While fresh foods grown by nature will vary in flavor, processed foods must answer to a higher authority: the consumer. Biting into a fresh orange that tastes bitter won't stop you from eating oranges, but that same bitter taste in a processed food made with "natural orange flavor" might cross it off your shopping list for good.

Even if scientists could control the defects of a pure flavor, there simply isn't enough to go around. For example, if the food industry used real strawberry flavor to make strawberry Jell-O, the world supply the fruit would be exhausted in a matter of days.

With new analytical techniques and the rapid advancements of biotechnology, artificial flavors now have a real taste advantage. Rather than relying on flavors from exotic substances, like the oil from the tropical rosewood tree, artificial flavors can be made with synthetic versions of the exact flavor components found in the original fruit.

And every flavor additive, whether natural or artificial, must be approved by the FDA for use in foods.

In the end, while a good advertising campaign might persuade a consumer to try a product, repeat business and the ultimate success in the marketplace will depend on how it tastes.

With today's demand and the level of expertise we can no longer assume that a product is more wholesome just because it uses natural flavors, or that it's inferior if the flavoring is artificial.

Perhaps the best solution is to avoid the flavoring issue altogether and stick with fresh foods.

Edward R. Blonz is a nutrition scientist based in Berkeley, Calif., who writes on food and nutrition topics. He holds a doctorate in nutrition from the University of California at Davis. His column will appear every other week in A La Carte.

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