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Saturday, December 15, 2012

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://consumerist.com/2011/07/oj-flavor-packs.html). Yet the FDA has no problem with this fraud because the chemical components were originally extracted from an orange.

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