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Saturday, December 15, 2012

45: Further on Fraudulent Flavours

The other night, shortly after I'd sent in “Unnatural Natural Flavours” to the newspaper, my son Ben brought up the subject. So I gave him the spiel of all I had just learned, namely, that chemical components are isolated from real foodstuffs and then mixed to come up with a taste that human senses interpret as appetizing. I gave the example of ethyl butyrate being used to flavour pasteurized orange juice, and that this chemical is extracted from the peel of oranges.

Ben said, “Well, then, if the flavour comes from real oranges ...” and I immediately saw that many people would skip to the same easy justification in their minds when confronted with artful promotional semantics.

So here is an analogy that I hope will put it into perspective. Let’s say we have a piece of writing by Shakespeare. It’s an original creation put together by an undisputed master. (An orange, also, is an original creation put together by a Master, however sometimes disputed.) Someone comes along and breaks that piece of poetry into a list of words, some of which he then breaks down further into a stockpile of letters. Then he uses those words and letters to put together some writing of his own. He may technically be a good writer, but what he writes will definitely not be Shakespeare. And supposing he chooses to write pornography, for instance, something vile, something unhealthy. And still he tries to insist that this is original Shakespeare, because all the raw components he used came directly from a creation of the bard himself.

But if you agree that what he has written must indeed be Shakespeare, then you might also say that the natural flavour added to fruit juice is natural.

In digging a little further on this subject, I stumbled upon a lot more disturbing stuff about orange juice, and juice in general. From comes the following information. “Once the juice is pressed from the fruit, it’s pasteurized.... Juice for concentrate is then heated in an evaporator that boils off much of its water but also burns away bitter oils from the orange peels, oils that can contain pesticides and degrade the juice’s taste. So-called ‘fresh’ juice, however, has to have those oils removed mechanically. It also has much of its oxygen stripped in a process called de-aeration. This is to prevent spoiling because the juice will spend up to a year in million-gallon vats before it’s packaged, sold and consumed.”

Does it say “filtered water” in the ingredients? “Under Canada’s Food and Drugs Act this can mean ... also water that contains fluoride or chlorine.”

Even if the product claims to contain only pure juice, “manufacturers can also add a variety of things ... including ... various kinds of sugar ... [and] preservative.” The article’s bottom line was to suggest that we simply buy whole oranges instead of juice.

But back to flavour fraud per se, did you ever hear about the scandal a couple of years ago when PepsiCo was accused of using aborted fetal matter in the flavouring process of their iconic soda? It caused several right-wing and pro-life groups in the US to boycott all Pepsi products.

It took some careful reading to figure out just what was hysteria and what was fact, but what I eventually found was that no such grisly ingredient was in the beverage itself. Stranger than fiction though, researchers had discovered that the kidney cells from a fetus will react to different flavours. They’ve learned to read the responses and can use them to predict what flavourings will achieve the “wow” factor with their consumers. These kidney cells all originated from one little fetus back in the ’70s, and new generations of these cells continue to be cultured in a lab.

The website of internationally recognized biotech company Senomyx (one of whose clients was PepsiCo) puts it like this: “Using isolated human taste receptors, we created proprietary taste receptor-based assay systems that provide a biochemical or electronic readout when a flavor ingredient interacts with the receptor.” They fail to tell the public where they get the cells to produce those receptors. Their process gives insight into how a flavourist figures out just what chemical combinations will “work” with their customers.

Last spring the boycott was lifted when PepsiCo changed their policy and declared that they would no longer “conduct or fund research that utilizes any human tissue or cell lines derived from embryos or fetuses.”

One of the boycott organizers, after expressing his appreciation for the new policy, added a personal comment: “I’m glad I can begin buying Tropicana Orange Juice, that was always my favorite!”

He probably enjoys the natural flavour.

44: Unnatural Natural Flavours

Living a week or two at a time out in Vernon, BC, so that my husband can enjoy a home-cooked meal when he comes home from his jobsite in the evening, I have taken up intermittent residence in a motel kitchenette. In contrast to our country home in Alberta, where I am 25 kilometres from the nearest grocery store, here I am less than 200 metres from Save-On Foods. Instead of shopping once in two weeks, I take a jaunt across the main drag once or twice a day. If I find I’ve forgotten something, I can literally be there and back and have my boots untied and pulled off, all in five minutes.

I was over there the other day looking for some good fruit juice. “Good” fruit juice, in my books, means that (besides, of course, having no added sugar) it has no “natural flavour.” For years, I was like most of the reasonably health-conscious populace: I would see that ingredient on any product and say, “Cool—it’s natural.” And I would buy it.

Then something I read one day made me suspicious, and I phoned the 1-800 number at SunRype to ask some questions about exactly what these natural flavours comprise. I came away unsure exactly what it all meant. The story was that, because fruits vary in flavour from crop to crop and because their customers “expect a uniform flavour experience,” they might add a little of this or that kind of different fruit juice to tweak the flavour. Well, I’m sure that’s true with some juices, because I have seen ingredient lists that, after the main juice or juices, will say, “May also contain juice of (this, that, or the other).

But I had heard that because MSG is derived from natural sources (seaweed), it qualifies as a “natural” flavour. When I put this question to the Sunrype girl, she said, “Everybody asks that. No, there’s no MSG in our juices.” She asked me for my address, saying that she would be sending me some coupons for their juices to thank me for my interest in their products. However, I had already decided that I wouldn’t be buying that brand anymore until I could learn something more conclusive. Since then, I have simply stayed away from any juices that mention natural flavour, but they are getting harder and harder to find.

Back in Vernon at the Save-On Foods, there I am cruising down this whole long aisle of juices, and I can’t find a single one without this dubious enhancement—until I come to the brand I usually buy now: Oasis. Even with this company though, you must check the ingredient list, because only four or five of their varieties (as far as I’ve seen) are pure in this sense. So I chose a carton of “Exotic Mango” and came back to our little motel room to peruse awhile on Google.

In a nutshell, there are two kinds of food flavourings: natural and artificial, and they are both produced by the same elite chemical companies. Artificial flavours are combinations of chemicals, mixed randomly until a “flavourist” finds a promising taste, a mix that gives the desired “sensory impression.” These chemicals are procured by “fractional distillation and additional chemical manipulation of naturally sourced chemicals, crude oil, or coal tar.”

What a turn-off for any thinking consumer! The word artificial is bad enough; look a little closer and you’d never want to buy it. And so enters the “natural flavour” industry. Drawing from natural, edible substances (according to US regulations, “from a spice, fruit, … vegetable, … yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf …, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products”), chemical components are isolated by “physical, microbiological or enzymatic processes” and then once again the flavourist goes to work mixing his chemical concoctions. The longer process costs the companies a little more, but the resultant flavours can be called natural because the original source of their ingredients is a natural product. (Quotes from Wikipedia)

The pasteurizing and storing of juices destroys their flavour. “Juice companies therefore hire flavor and fragrance companies, the same ones that formulate perfumes for Dior and Calvin Klein, to engineer flavor packs to add back to the juice to make it taste fresh. ... Those in the industry will tell you that the flavor packs ... resemble nothing found in nature. The packs added to juice earmarked for the North American market tend to contain high amounts of ethyl butyrate, a chemical in the fragrance of fresh squeezed orange juice that, juice companies have discovered, Americans favor” (ttp:// Yet the FDA has no problem with this fraud because the chemical components were originally extracted from an orange.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

43: The Last Post

The last time I sent out an email announcing a new blog post, I included a little slice-of-life kind of story that I called "The Last Post." So many people wrote to comment on it that I thought I should put it in the blog where others could enjoy it too, instead of deleting it from my "Sent" file and exiling it into outer cyber darkness forever.

But as I considered adding it to the blog, I had to take into account that this site is now visited by guests from over 60 countries, most of whom would have no idea of what I was talking about. So here is a little glossary up front:

Remembrance Day: On the 11th of November every year, countries in the Commonwealth observe the time when hostilities in World War I officially ended in 1919: at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. We honour members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty, then, and since then.

The Last Post: This is a melody usually played as a trumpet solo right at 11:00 a.m. A minute of silence follows, and is then broken by the trumpet playing Reveille (translated "wake up"). Wikipedia says, "The two tunes symbolize sunset and sunrise respectively, and therefore, death and resurrection."

The Poppy: Every year at the beginning of November, artificial poppies are made available to wear as a sign of respect and appreciation for our vets. In Canada, monies donated for these little emblems amount to $16.5 million annually. All poppy money collected by a Legion branch stays within that local community and pays for medical equipment, home services, and long-term care facilities for ex-service people in need of financial assistance.

The poppy became a symbol of remembrance through a poem by John McCrae, a Canadian poet, physician, author, artist and soldier. The poem, In Flanders Fields, was inspired through the loss of a dear friend in battle. McCrae himself, in charge of a field hospital, succumbed to pneumonia in 1918 at the age of 45.

When I was in grade school, I and my fellows students were required to memorize the poem. It's amazing how easily it still springs from the memory:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scare heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.

With this rather lengthy intro, here is the story I sent out with my last email:

The Last Post

Greg and I jump out of bed at 5:45 in our motel room. He is hustling to meet his crew for breakfast; I need to fix the first meal of my day and then go back to bed for a couple of hours. The room is a little chilly, so I slip on my cosy, short grey robe. My youngest helped me pick it out at La Senza. It’s probably a couple of decades to young for me with its double row of sassy ruffles around the bottom, but I like it.

Below the ruffle hangs the hot pink print of my nightie. My legs are still bare, so I rummage in Greg’s dresser for his pyjama pants, a subtle blue-and-grey plaid flannelette. I pull them on and bunch the ample waistline up in the front, securing it with a ponytail elastic. Socks, black, to keep my feet from getting cold.

I’m still not warm enough, so I add my go-everywhere black fleece vest with the fake leather shoulders and collar. The plunging neck of the robe is letting in the draft, so I grab the scarf I was wearing yesterday, a bold block plaid of black, rust, and grey, and I sling it around my neck. Shortly thereafter I catch a reflection of myself in the full-length mirror. I’m quite a sight.

“Hey,” I say to Greg, “how do you like my look this morning?”

He pauses in his hurried morning routine and gazes at me for several long seconds. “Stunning,” he says.

Stunning. I guess that would explain the stunned look on his face.

“Halloween is over,” he adds.

“I know,” I tell him, “and so is Remembrance Day, but I still have my poppy.” I lift the collar of my vest to show him the brilliant splash of red.

I got the poppy at the Edmonton Airport just before catching the plane to Vernon. It was Armistice Day and somehow I had thus far missed picking up one of the little fake flowers with the deeply emotional symbolism. I inquired of a group, each of whom was wearing a poppy, and they directed me to where they’d got theirs. Soon I had mine pinned to my vest.

As I checked through security, I heard bagpipes coming from somewhere. I thought it was live at first, and my flesh rose in goose-bumps and tears started in my eyes, as always happens to me at this time of remembrance. I soon realized that the sound was coming from a large flat screen TV in a sports bar/restaurant.

I was sitting at my gate when I heard an airline personnel tell a passenger that there had been a gate change for the flight. I stood and gathered up my belongings to move along when suddenly the strains of the Last Post floated through the airport. I checked my watch. Eleven o’clock. I closed my eyes and bowed my head and waited while the trumpet sounded its mournful solo.

Give them a moment of remembrance; they gave us their lives.

But as I listened, I was aware of other sounds. A lot of other sounds. People chatting on cell phones, announcements over the PA, luggage wheels rolling on the hard floor. There didn’t seem to be another soul nearby who had paused for or even noticed the solemn salute. I was already sobered by the sacred moment; now I was saddened as well by the lack of attention it received. Perhaps most people now think that the Last Post only refers to the most recent blog entry.

Which brings me to mine.

It’s called Xcellent Xylitol, and it takes a look at this wonderful natural sweetener that I’ve just recently learned about. Check it out below.