We think we experience the aroma of food when we smell it, but it’s actually a bit more complex than that. When you bite into the food, the aroma goes into the back of your throat and through a small hole up into your nose. This is called retronasal olfaction and is a more powerful form of smelling than normal smelling. This is what allows you to experience the richness and nuance of food.
Brain scans reveal the experience of flavor takes up more gray matter than any other sensory experience. Additionally, the largest portion of the human genome involves the creation of your nose. So, from an evolutionary perspective, this chemical-sensing ability appears to be particularly important.
How a food tastes is largely determined by the volatile chemicals in the food. Chemicals that give food a specific smell are extremely important because smell makes up 80-90% of the sense of taste. In processed food, this mixture of chemicals is called “flavor.” The same mixture of chemicals would be called “fragrance” if it were found in cleaning products, perfumes or cosmetics. The difference between the two is small, and the companies that produce these secret mixtures are often exactly the same.
The Parallels of Taste and Smell Between Animals and Humans
Experiments1 2 3 4 by Utah State University scientist Fred Provenza proved that animals use flavors to obtain required nutrients, and it appears the same applies to humans, and that this is why this incredible chemical-sensing apparatus exists.
In his book “The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor,” award-winning journalist and author, Mark Schatzker, investigates the introduction of flavor into the industrialized food supply.
“For millions of years, it worked perfectly. It helped us balance our nutrition so that we could find the foods we need, get what we needed and not eat to excess,” Schatzker says.
“That all changed in the mid-1950s. The first gas chromatograph went on sale. What’s important to remember is that before that, scientists had absolutely no idea where flavor came from. They knew a lot at this point about things like the macronutrients, protein, carbs and fat.
They knew a lot about vitamins. But flavor was a mystery, [in large part because] flavors exist in such minute amounts — we’re talking parts per million, parts per billion … With the gas chromatograph, you could take a piece of food and literally turn it into a gas. You volatize it and send the gas through this big coil. The coil separates every compound out.
Out the other end comes each flavor chemical, and then they would analyze it. It didn’t take long for them to analyze the flavors in things like fried chicken, tacos, tomatoes or cherries. Then they started making [the flavors] in flavor factories. They started putting them in foods … Junk food is high-calorie, nutritionally empty food, that is true. But here’s the thing; we wouldn’t eat that stuff if not for the flavor. That’s what was added to make it irresistible.”
The “Natural Flavors” Hustle
As the Center for Public Integrity points out, industries can basically decide for themselves what is safe for you to eat. Of the 10,000 food additives on the market, 95-99% have never been tested for safety when consumed in independently, let alone been tested for synergistic toxicity that can occur when you combine several of them together.
As the public has become more educated and savvier about food and nutrition, many people are now trying to avoid, among other things, artificial flavors and colors. Yet the food industry is still tricking most of us.
If you read food labels, then you’ve seen the inclusion of “natural flavors.” If you’re like most people and think these are different from and healthier than artificial flavors, you’re sadly mistaken. Originally, “natural flavors” referred to things like spices and spice extracts — flavors obtained through natural means. This changed when consumers began rejecting foods containing “artificial flavors.” Schatzker explains:
“When consumers started getting frightened by the word ‘artificial,’ the flavor companies began to make the very same flavored chemicals using natural means … It’s the same flavored chemicals, made through fermentation or evaporation, for example, and not through more chemically complex ways. The bottom line is, it’s the same stuff … There is nothing more wholesome or more natural about these so-called ‘natural’ flavorings.
In fact, you could argue the artificial flavors are better because they’re purer. When they make these natural flavorings, they don’t have full control over what they’re getting in. They take these chemical extracts and they don’t know exactly what’s in there.
The problem is you have mothers looking at things like yogurt tubes and granola bars; they see this word ‘natural flavoring’ or they see ‘no artificial coloring or flavoring,’ and they’re being totally hoodwinked.”
But what is “natural flavor” exactly? Are natural flavors really better than artificial flavors? The simple fact that McDonald’s says its “natural beef flavor” is derived from wheat and milk should make you wonder.
The Differences Between Artificial and Natural Flavors
The Food and Drug Administration defines natural flavors as substances derived from animals or plants and artificial flavors are those that are not. An artificial flavor must be comprised of one of the nearly 700 FDA-allowed flavoring chemicals or food additives categorized as GRAS or “Generally Recognized As Safe,” or any of 2000 other chemicals not directly regulated by FDA but sanctioned for use by the industry group, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States. Most of these chemicals exist as natural flavors or can be extracted from them.
Interestingly, the chemical mixtures that comprise artificial flavors are often simpler than “natural” flavors. This is because artificial flavors contain fewer chemicals than natural ones, which can be mixtures of several hundred chemicals.
But are those artificial flavors safe? The flavor industry argues that artificial flavors undergo stricter safety evaluations than natural flavors. The truth is that safety evaluations for all food additives and flavor additives are not as thorough as they should be.
How Naturally Flavored Foods Are Driving Chronic Diseases
Most people eat too much these days, and more than 2/3 of Americans are either overweight or obese as a result. Processed, artificially and naturally flavored foods have a lot to do with this, as these chemicals make you eat food you normally would not want to eat and eat more than you normally would. This creates additional barriers and obstacles when trying to lose weight.
Additionally, a lot of people suffer from lack of energy, the inability to focus, NAFLD, poor sleep quality and other health ailments that are partly the result of the consumption of natural and artificial flavors.
Shockingly, even whole foods like chicken and pork are now getting flavor enhancements, as the real thing has gotten so bland. This loss of flavor is a direct result of the way livestock and animals are being raised.
“We raise our livestock so quickly and so cheaply that it tastes like cardboard,” Schatzker says. “So, it’s not just Doritos and soda. It’s everything. We might think we’re making a healthy choice but, really, we’re being fooled in the same way.”
What Exactly Is In a Flavor?
Flavors are complex mixtures that sometimes comprise more than 100 chemicals. When you see the word “flavor” on a food label, you have no clue what chemicals, carrier solvents or preservatives have been added to the food. For people with unusual food allergies (the eight most common food allergens must be labeled when used in flavorings) or those on restricted diets, this can be a serious concern.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines a natural flavor as “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”
These flavor mixtures often include amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, ethyl butyrate, various aliphatic acid ester, ethyl acetate, ethyl valerate, ethyl isovalerate, ethyl pelargonate, vanillin, lemon essential oil, citral, citronellal, rose absolute, geraninol, orange essential oil, geranium essential oil, aldehyde C10, ethyl heptanoate, acetaldehyde, aldehydes C14 and C16, styralyl acetate, dimethyl benzyl carbinyl acetate, benzyl formate, phenyl ethyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl isovalerate, anise essential oil, esters of colophony and benzaldehyde and may contain terpenyl isovalerate, isopropyl isovalerate, citronellyl isovalerate, geranyl isovalerate, benzyl isovalerate, cinnamyl formate, isopropyl valerate, butyl valerate, methyl allyl butyrate and potentially the synthetic ingredients cyclohexyl acetate, allyl butyrate, allyl cyclohexylvalerate, allyl isovalerate and cyclohexyl butyrate.
Food label ingredient lists may not list each individual chemical additive since they are used in small amounts and are often combined with many complementary flavors.
Take apple flavor. It can be quite complex and vary from one apple variety to another. While the solvent, emulsifier and preservatives make up the majority of the ingredient, it is the flavoring substances that provide the characteristic taste and smell. Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients lists a large number of chemicals that can be used to approximate the taste of an apple.
Cherry flavors for example, tend to include 5-10 individual chemical flavors depending on the desired outcome, like a woodsy black cherry or a simpler jolly rancher cherry flavor. A label with cherry flavor may simply list natural flavor, artificial flavor, or both-depending on which is used.
Artificial Preservatives and Solvents in “Natural” Flavor
In addition to flavors themselves, these mixtures contain chemicals that have other functions. Solvents, emulsifiers, flavor modifiers and preservatives often make up 80-90% of the mixture. The natural or artificial emulsifiers, solvents and preservatives in flavor mixtures are called “incidental additives.”
That means the manufacturer does not have to disclose their presence on food labels. Food manufacturers can use a natural solvent such as ethanol in their flavors, but the FDA also permits them to use synthetic solvents such as propylene glycol. Flavor extracts and food ingredients that have been derived from genetically engineered (i.e GMO) crops may also be labeled “natural” because the FDA has not fully defined what the term “natural” means.
Ironically, the FDA requires a natural flavor to be labeled as an artificial flavor if it is added to a food to create a new taste as opposed to reinforcing a flavor that is already present in the food. For instance, adding naturally derived blueberry flavor to a plain muffin would require that the blueberry flavor be labeled “artificial flavor.”
What About “Organic” Natural Flavors?
For “organic foods,” the natural flavor must have been produced without synthetic solvents, carriers and artificial preservatives. According to the Natural Flavor Questionnaire that is based on guidelines created by the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the additives NOT allowed in natural flavor in organic foods include propylene glycol, polyglycerol esters of fatty acids, mono- and di-glycerides, benzoic acid, polysorbate 80, medium chain triglycerides, BHT, BHA, triacetin. In “foods made with organic ingredients,” food processors have greater flexibility to use synthetic extraction or carrier solvents.
Why Flavor Food?
The cost of the flavors in a food can be around half a penny per serving, but processed food is such a big market that flavoring has become big business too. The annual sales of the fragrance and flavor industry is estimated at $24 billion. It is controlled by a few large flavor houses, notably Givaudan, Firmenich, IFF and Symrise.
Artificial flavor chemicals are also easier to control; flavors derived from natural products may vary with plant production or harvesting methods. The process of extracting natural flavors is often long, difficult, and requires heavy processing, while the artificial route can be less time consuming, involve less processing, and reduce environmental concerns and costs.
From a food manufacturer’s perspective, the difference between a natural and artificial flavor often comes down to cost and consumer preference. A natural flavor almost always costs much more than an artificial flavor. Still, food makers are often willing to pay because they know that some consumers prefer “natural” flavors.
But there are other reasons to flavor foods. When foods are pasteurized for safety, many of the volatile chemicals evaporate or degrade. To make a product like orange juice taste fresh after pasteurization, these chemicals have to be restored. They dupe your taste buds and smell receptors into believing you are drinking fresh orange juice when it really may be rather old.
A great deal of scientific engineering and design time goes into crafting flavors for processed foods. This specialized work is done by just 500 professional flavorists who are responsible for the majority of flavors in nearly all food processed in the U.S.
Food products are flavored to increase sales by making mouthwatering tastes, making packaged food taste fresh, giving a processed food a bolder taste than a comparable natural food and making the taste short-lived so that you eat more. In a 2011 interview with Morley Safer of 60 Minutes, two flavor scientists from Givaudan said that one of their goals was making food addictive.
(Givaudan) Streich: In our fruit flavors we’re talking about, we want a burst in the beginning. And maybe a finish that doesn’t linger too much so that you want more of it.
(Givaudan) Hassel: And you don’t want a long linger, because you’re not going to eat more of it if it lingers.
(60 Minutes) Safer: Aha. So I see, it’s going to be a quick fix. And then–
(Givaudan) Hassel: Have more.
(60 Minutes) Safer: And then have more. But that suggests something else?
(Givaudan) Hassel: Exactly.
(60 Minutes) Safer: Which is called addiction?
(Givaudan) Hassel: Exactly.
(60 Minutes) Safer: You’re trying to create an addictive taste?
(Givaudan) Hassel: That’s a good word.
Trust Your Intuition When Eating Real Food
Your body was designed to identify the best foods for you in any given moment. The call of certain foods is really difficult to ignore. However, problems arise when your body is being tricked into craving foods that don’t contain the nutrients promised by their smell and taste. The system does work, however, if you eat real food.
“My advice to people is to eat the most delicious food you can, but buy real foods,” Schatzker says. “Don’t be frightened of calories. Don’t be frightened of food … The other thing I’d like to tell people is be aware of your own eating experience … I think there are two different kinds of delicious.
There’s a delicious where you can’t stop eating. This is what happens to me with flavored potato chips or Doritos. You have one and you just can’t resist putting your hand back in the bag … These are experiences to be avoided …
Then there are other foods — dark chocolate is a great example; a great tomato is a really good example — where the point isn’t to stuff as much into your mouth as fast as you can. The point is to sit in a kind of deep contemplation of this incredible flavor experience. That, to me, is a better kind of food experience to have. I don’t think it’s one that you need to be afraid of. I think it’s one that will give back.
Also, be aware of how you feel after a meal. Try to integrate that into your perception of food. I’ve eaten some pretty low-end fried chicken that had that manic I-can’t-stop-eating [sensation], and an hour later I felt dreadful. If you can remember that feeling, it makes you less inclined to go after that [unhealthy food] again in the future.”
What kind of flavor should you look for and use? The kind of flavor that’s in your spice rack as much as possible.
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References: notated in article