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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.

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