But It’s “Naturally” Made In The Lab!

As a general principle I try to avoid food that’s spent time in a beaker.  I want my food to have achieved its success by virtue of its own natural ability. No cheating.

This is why “flavor” scares me.  If beef stock is meant to taste like beef stock it would be made with enough beef to make it beefy. And yet, there it is, all the time, staring out from the ingredient list, sheltered from scorn by its qualifier – “NATURAL FLAVORING”.

Four brands later (even the organic ones weren’t exempt*), I found beef stock without flavoring.

It’s rampant. I began researching, and consulted Wikipedia. The search term “natural flavoring” dumped me onto the “Flavor” page, where flavor is defined as, “the sensory IMPRESSION of a food”.   Aha!   So flavor (even the natural kind) is basically a trick to make you THINK you’re experiencing something you’re not.  It’s the steroid of the food world.  A drug enhanced performance by beef stock.

Flavoring is administered to foods who are looking to boost their ability. Plain and simple. If the “buttery” pie crust had enough butter, there would be no need for natural butter flavor.  It also gets added because it’s cheap and it’s more shelf-stable than the truly naturally occurring flavor from the food itself.  So as a food loses its flavor-strength over time, natural flavors allow it to extend its career.

But natural flavor is an oxymoron.  This kind of “flavor” does not occur naturally. It’s made in a lab and is highly processed to extract the flavor from the food and reproduce it in massive volume.  Will it harm you?  It may not.  But it certainly won’t nourish you, and more problematically, it takes you away from knowing what the real flavor of real food is.

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* Organic foods are allowed to contain non-organic “natural flavoring”.  Scroll down to the end of this highly ambiguous (to the point of almost comical!) PDF on flavor regulation (here). The document states that for organic foods, “natural flavor must be from natural sources that have not been chemically modified in a way that makes them different from their natural state.”  Um, the natural state of blueberry “flavor” is in a blueberry, or its juice, not in a factory-extracted, highly manipulated blueberry derivative.  So I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not convinced…

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  • Cindy

    It’s not a TG food, but I give thanks for it daily since I love it – yogurt. But I have become dismayed to see that even the “healthiest”, organic yogurt usually has added “natural flavors”. Why can they not just add more REAL blueberries to make it taste like blueberries!

    • Crowther Amanda-Beth

      Blueberries are expensive

  • debbiejl

    I love your blog! I am so happy when “Sweet Beet” is highlighted in my g-reader. I now want to run and look at all of my boxes of chicken stock and other foods to see what “natural flavor” is in there. (So I did and here’s what I found:)

    Ok, I am a little confused. My Trader Joes organic chicken broth lists under ingredients: natural chicken flavor but in parenthesis it says: (natural chicken stock, natural chicken flavor and salt). Ok, this doesnt sound like what I was thinking when I bought it – just chicken stock. Hmmmm…. how could natural flavor be organic?

    • Michelle

      It’s not … there is no requirement for organic products to contain organic flavorings. Some organic products DO use (and say) “organic strawberry flavor”, but most are, “natural strawberry flavors”. Organic foods are (in theory) not allowed to use flavors that are “chemically” derived, but my feeling is there is a lot of “grey” here, and much that is not disclosed and intentionally left very murky.

  • http://Slottedspoonmedia.com Lisa

    I’ve tried explaining this to people and they just don’t get it. What I don’t understand is how the product can can be approved as “organic” if it’s full of flavorings. I just bought a box of organic oatmeal in a hurry and when I got home I was sorely disappointed to find out the apple wasn’t really from apples at all. :(

    ps I love your blog!

    • Michelle

      Organic foods are allowed to contain non-organic “natural flavoring”. I just added a link to a PDF on this subject at the end of the post (see Section IV in the pdf). The very last paragraph addresses this issue.

  • Kate

    I just can’t get over any kind of shop-bought stock, whether “cube” or “bouillion” or whatever. I have made stock like my mother does, and her mother did, from bones and veg and herbs, since I learned to cook. Since when was the principle ingredient salt? I don’t deny that salt has a place in cooking but it’s never been THE MAIN part of any home made stock that I’ve ever known. And it ruins your gravy.

  • Juliana

    Oh this was a funny one. Indeed, what is chicken stock – take the carcass from the chicken you roasted, throw in the skin and leftover bones, a quartered onion, whatever herbs you’ve got lying about, a celery stick, a carrot, and put on the stove at a simmer. After 3 hours, strain. Stock! I frighten everyone who comes to dinner when I collect table scraps after the meal. Ahh, but they do enjoy the lentils, couscous, rice, soup and tortellini I make using my stock base though. No complaints there! Thanks Michelle, beautiful pics and great reading as always.

    • http://thesweetbeet gale

      You said “you frieghten everyone who comes to dinner when you collect table scraps after the meal” in order to make broth for other dishes. ARE YOU USING THE LEFT-OVER BONES FROM EVERYONE’S PLATES? IF SO, IS THAT SANITARY??!! JUST ASKING.

      • bhall

        if you boil the stock for more than 15 min then it is fine to use whatever

        • tdp

          That is so absolutely not true about it being ok. I’ve been a cook/chef for over 15 years, and if a restaurant got caught doing that they’d close the doors. That’s like saying you can just toss that chicken wing that fell on the floor back in the fryer for a minute and its sanitary. False!!

          • bhall

            your example is different – i’m talking specifically about boiling liquid. being a chef qualifies you for nothing. give me a single microorganism that causes human illness that isn’t killed by boiling liquid for 15+ min. seriously, go find me one. you’ll fail. unless there is a prion disease (e.g. mad cow) you are safe (and if there was everyone who ate the meat is screwed). that is why you can make even filthy water safe to drink after boiling it for 15 min (actually less studies show). that is why the cdc recommends that, the military does that, and many people including myself have done that for years traveling abroad in remote areas. NOTHING LIVES AFTER BEING BOILED FOR 15 MIN!. if you are scared fine, don’t do it. anyone who doubts this, feel free to send me a sample of broth made from bones boiled for 15+ min and I will test it for pathogens in my wife’s lab.

          • ladyluck

            well, bhall is mostly right, there are some bacteria that have spores that can theoretically survive quite high temps (b. cereus i think), though boiling for an hour or 2 as when making stock would almost certainly kill them. also bacterial growth occurs quickly as food cools, so if the bones are collected right after everyone eats they are also almost definitely fine after boiling. food industry rules are different than home rules because it gets a little complicated since patrons could be immunocompromised, or food could get contaminated due to other foods and volume that doesn’t exist in a home. just think of it this way – in a restaurant you wouldn’t pick up a cookie that fell on the floor but most would in their house. that’s also an issue of gross vs sanitary. and actually frying, since the temp is so high, is almost guaranteed to kill ANY organism as long as it is heated through.
            love, lady

          • Michelle

            Just to chime in here, the issue with flavoring (that the post raises) is not that there is are any bacteria in the flavorings, that can be boiled out of it … the issue is that there are chemicals used to create the flavorings that are not created in nature.

  • Lynn

    So, what’s the solution – all you adults, back into the kitchen? If we don’t work, we can’t afford the butter to make homemade pie crust, or the chicken – either to roast or to make stock from. I’m more averse to eating things that are not fresh (you say “it’s more shelf-stable than the truly naturally occurring flavor from the food itself. So as a food loses its flavor-strength over time, natural flavors allow it to extend its career.”) than, necessarily, things that are not certifiably organic. Do we insist on labeling with the date of manufacture, rather than, or in addition to, “use by” dates? Do we write to the manufacturers of so-called “organic” food, and require them to disclose what’s in the “flavors” they use, or to discontinue their use altogether, at least in some of their products, duly labeled as being “without flavorings”? That will go over like a lead balloon; they do want to sell the stuff, after all; and, as a commodity, how does the price of butter compare with “buttery flavor”? I mean, yuk, I agree, but if, without these flavorings, processed organic foods taste worse, last a shorter time, or cost significantly more, than foods with these flavorings, what odds would you give that there will be any processed organic foods at all? And that gets back to my first point – people buy the stuff, rather than make it themselves, because it is less expensive and faster, and they have to work as well as feed themselves and their children. What do you propose for a solution?

    • Michelle

      As someone who does NOT make her own stock, I’m with you on this dilemma: spend the time making it from scratch with the comfort of having “met” all the ingredients OR save time and buy pre-made but not be sure whose really showing up.

      My advice: do what you CAN do and don’t let what you CAN’T do stop you from doing what you can* ….. 1) Look closely at labels: there are increasingly options that do NOT have ANY flavoring and taste great (I bought frozen pie dough in a big mound, it was flour, water, butter&salt, outstanding, and cheap.) 2) Make a couple simple things from scratch, and freeze so you’ll have on hand (basic pasta sauce for ex). 3) Try to add your own flavors. For ex – I’m a big yogurt eater. I buy plain and add honey + fresh (or frozen) fruit, same w/ oatmeal.

      I know it’s hard to avoid even natural flavors, but it gets easier once you’re on the look out (I also think you develop a (non) “taste” for them and start to not like the heavier taste they impart). And if you eat some flavoring now and then, you eat some flavoring. It’s alright and not worth quitting your job to avoid!

      *My yoga teacher said this. Apply it to everything in life and you’re set.

  • Dionne

    These last few posts are why I love your site Michelle. Practical reponses, thought through by grown-up people.

    I strive hard to make what I can from scratch – as I simply don’t like my food to be ‘messed’ with too much (a big part of my Jamaican heritage!), but I also work hard, so time is at a premium. Sometimes you just have to take a short-cut. But understanding what I’m buying and ingesting the occasional processed item really isn’t the end of the world. Life is all about balance.

  • http://6512andgrowing.wordpress.com/ 6512 and growing

    “Natural flavor is an oxymoron.”
    I loved that line.
    Eating is getting more and more confusing.

    I usually don’t have a chicken carcass lying around for chicken stock, but the vacuumed-seal and canned stocks freak me out a little. Last night I substituted milk for stock in a butternut squash soup recipe, and it was delish. Another time I made a quickie onion, garlic broth in place of “chicken stock” and called it good. And it was.
    I like your yoga teacher’s line. Am considering getting it tattooed to my forehead.

  • http://shoulders-back.blogspot.com/ Isabel

    Love it. And your yoga teacher’s quote too! It is so hard to find “unflavored” food now. There are a lot of things that are easy to make from scratch and keep frozen though. Whenever I make soup I always make extra broth to freeze for next time. And you can use the veggies from the broth for your soup or lots of other stuff! I also love making homemade pizza dough and pie crusts which also freeze well, and there are so many delicious options!

  • http://rainingjellybeans.blogspot.com Danee Kaplan

    Oh I agree wholeheartedly. We joined an organic CSA grown by farmer Dale, 6 years ago. I was interested in the concept because the produce is local but I didn’t really think about taste or shelf-life. This soon changed as we immediately realized that the food tasted much better than supermarket produce and and were instantly shocked and the taste of a carrot. In fact, acting like the grown-ups we were, my husband and I would fight over who got the last one. Because the produce was picked the day of delivery or maybe the day before, it lasts much longer than it’s mass market cousin. Over the 6 years, I have come to realize that Dale’s potatoes actually have a beautiful, albeit, subtle flavor, his cabbage is fabulous just quickly stir fried with garlic and a splash of vinegar, is just yummy, and his eggs are a totally different color and flavor than anything purchased at a store.

    I am so convinced that local foods grown the way they are meant to be grown- crops rotated to avoid soil depletion, small, manageable fields, experimenting with a wide range of varieties are far superior. I have just purchased some heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo, hoping that they\ beans taste as great as those local organic carrots.

  • http://aftml.wordpress.com shadymama

    I, just last night, read the section in “fast food nation” on ‘flavoring’ – natural and otherwise…it is *fascinating*. in a completely effed up and terrifying way…

  • http://www.kissesforbreakfast.com Emily Elizabeth @ Kisses for Breakfast

    I love your blog. This sort of thing is so interesting to me. I remember when I learned that a label could say “low fat” as long as it was at least x% less fat than the original. So the “low fat” snickers bar could be labeled as such when it was really just as high in fat, but was just x% smaller than the original – therefore x% less fat. Crazy! I never cease to be amazed by what companies can get away with on labels.

    I pretty much just make everything from scratch to avoid processed foods. I also don’t like all of the added sugar that creeps into things. Like “All Natural Cashew Carrot Soup” by Pacific – they add sugar. Who needs sugar added to carrot soup? Carrots are sweet enough in my opinion.

    Thanks for a very interesting post as usual. I learn something every time I read your blog. :)

  • http://none J A Copp

    Natural flavoring = msg in some cases, according to Dr. Russell Blaylock, and, yes, even in organic food.

  • jamie reddington

    Natural flavors, citric acid, maltodextrin, barley malt, soy protein powders, fructose, corn starch, corn syrup, etc. and a variety of other names are conveniently mixed into “organic foods” by supposed ethical manufacturers to enhance the taste of food. However, behind the chemical names lie the dangerous neurotoxin MSG. So this isn’t just a question of taste but deceptive practices both in the organic food industry as well as their compadres in the non-organic food industry.

  • Jonathan David Taylor

    Only last night I discovered that the herbal tea Good Earth that I have consumed for years, puts “natural flavor” in with its various herbs. And when confronted by a sore throat yesterday, I discovered that every variety of Ricola has “natural flavors” as well. What has happened to us? How is it that the vast majority of food producers finds it irresistible to include flavoring (MSG) in their foods, beverages, toothpaste, etc.? The FDA needs to some serious reform if natural means “anything that can be chemically altered after being extracted from something that was alive.”

  • Patricia Murray

    FYI. The text on your site is nearly illegible when viewed on 21 in. LG monitor plugged into a new Macbook Pro. Granted I like my screen fairly bright but you may want to consider choosing a font that is easier to read across all systems.

    • Michelle

      Thanks for pointing this out. I’ll look into it. Is it the font style that you find difficult to read or the color of the font (it’s one shade lighter than black), or the size of the font?

  • http://www.suzannerabi.com Suzanne Rabi

    This is great. I am going to look at all of my stock.

  • http://www.facebook.com/blair.dickerson.3 Blair Dickerson

    natural flavors are actually forms or different names for MSG. Something else to look out for is anything hydrolyzed. for example: Hydrolyzed yeast or Yeast extract; both are MSG

  • efoodie

    i just got the book mentioned today , from the library. looked up natural flavor and was upset , to say the least but not surprised. i have had a headache fora week and thought it was something else , but took another look at the ingredient list of ice cream i have in the freezer and there it was in the middle,of all the good stuff – surrounded by good stuff and nestled in there as if it belonged …natural flavors. well now i know and i am going back to making everything myself or doing without. Even our basic foods that we would start with , when making it our self, are being altered and there is such deception in the food business , all they care about is you wanting it more and more , and no concerns about what it is doing to our brains or bodies. I am more aware and this is a start.