Closing the disconnect between the food you eat and where it comes from

by Christina Ospina, ’12

When you see “natural flavoring” on the “Ingredients” listing on food packaging, beavers might not be the first thing you think of, but this animal and the additives in your processed food might be more related than you think.  Many items you consume every day are flavor-enhanced by ingenious molecular combinations, often derived from sources completely unrelated to the foods you eat.  It’s important to think about where food flavoring and food additives come from, and it is your right and responsibility to know what you are eating and drinking every day.

So what do beavers have to do with natural flavoring?  Vanilla, raspberry, and strawberry flavorings can come from castoreum, an excretion from a beaver’s castor sacs, found in their backside (to get a little graphic, these sacs are located in their genital region by their anal glands.  Since this food flavoring is derived from a source found in nature, it qualifies as the “natural flavoring” you can see listed in certain candies, ice creams, yoghurts and more.

This might be shocking to you, and it might make you wonder, where do other food flavors come from? Are there any consequences of eating natural and artificial flavors?  These are important questions we should ask ourselves when grabbing foods off grocery store shelves.

The work that the food flavoring industry is really quite impressive.  They extract flavor molecules from flowers, meats, roots, and other natural sources, mimic them, and make an amazing array of natural and artificial scents and flavors.  In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser found that flavoring companies make thousands of flavors using complicated sounding molecules like ethyl heptanoate, dipropyl ketone, and methyl-2-peridylketone.  After isolating these chemicals, scientists then combine them carefully and creatively to make flavors we all recognize, like strawberry or popcorn.  To let you know more, food flavoring companies like Givaudan have managed to make over 700 flavors of orange, tangerine, and mandarin, they have developed raspberry flavors that can have seedy, sweet, or floral properties, and they have crafted chicken flavoring that isn’t even derived from chicken.  This can seem a bit unbelievable, but you have to give these companies credit for their research an ingenuity.

“Orange” is a popular flavor that has been developed by food flavor companies.  If you’ve ever made your own fresh-squeezed orange juice, you may have noticed that it tastes quite different from Tropicana’s or Florida Natural’s orange juice you get from the supermarket.  Interestingly, these orange flavor of the orange juice you drink with breakfast comes from artificial flavor packs – and this allows it to taste the same, no matter the season, no matter where the oranges come from.

So how is commercial orange juice made?  First oranges are picked, crushed, then pasteurized to remove the oxygen so that it can be stored for months.  Removing the oxygen actually strips the juice of its natural flavor, so to make it taste like oranges again, they have to add flavor packs.  This flavor is largely composed of ethyl butyrate, a chemical extracted from the essences and oils or orange byproducts.  Since the flavor packs use molecules technically derived from oranges themselves, Tropicana, Florida Natural, and Simply Orange can claim to use 100% orange juice not made from concentrate.

Impressive, for sure, but how innocent is it?

The flavor industry wants to make the food you eat taste good.  They have certainly done a pretty good job with orange juice.  The scientists that develop these complex flavors want you to have a pleasurable eating experience, and if they succeed, they will make the flavors so good that you will want to come back to it again and again.   One flavorist explains, “you don’t want a long linger, because you’re not going to eat more if it lingers” – the more you like what they make, the more you will want it, the more you buy.  They can make something as flavorless as paper taste so good that you will want to eat more of it.

The bordering-on-addictive nature of food flavoring can have serious health implications, especially when junk foods filled with sugars, salts, and fats are being manipulated with flavors that make them irresistible.  Foods like chips, french fries, sodas, cookies, and TV dinners, as unhealthy as they are, taste delicious due to flavor enhancers, and make people eat more than they should.  One challenge the flavor industry is facing is turning many processed foods into a low fat, low sugar, or low calorie version of the same food.  How do you make a soda taste the same without the sweetness of high fructose corn syrup or other sugars?  Add in natural and artificial flavors made in a laboratory.  The problem with this then, is that when you consume zero-calorie drinks, your body then expects calories but never gets any.  To compensate for the calories it expected but didn’t receive, your appetite increases later in the day.

Clearly, the issues associated can be highly complex and can lead to a wide array of consequences.  Added food flavors aren’t necessarily a bad thing – everyone wants food to taste good!  What matters is knowing what you are putting in your body.  Knowing what “natural” flavors mean, and understanding they often just mimic the foods they claim to be, are an important step in making wiser food-conscious decisions.

So what will you think of when your friends talk about trying Jack-in-the-Box’s new “Bacon Shake”?  Will it be – I can’t believe this doesn’t have real bacon in it?  How cool is it that we can manufacture flavors from substances that are nothing like the flavor they mimic?  Did a beaver donate its castoreum to contribute to the “natural and artificial vanilla” in the ice cream?

Get connected to your food.  Check the labels – are you drinking juice from freshly squeezed oranges, or a re-flavored liquid derived from orange peels?  Are you eating real cheese, or something fatty that tastes like cheese?  Experiment at home and make your own fruit juices to see what real “natural” flavors taste like.  Download the Fooducate iPhone app to learn more about food nutrition and what’s in your food.  Ask the questions and learn about the foods you eat!  You should know exactly what food you are putting into your body, without having to wonder about the chance that beaver glands or artificially synthesized chemicals are making your food taste better than it would without the enhancer.

My name is Christina Ospina, and I am a senior majoring in HumBio, with a concentration in Human Ecology: Human-Environment Relations.  My interests right now focus on the reciprocity of the human-environment relationship (so, the idea that humans have a profound impact on conditions in the natural world, and the changes we create can in turn affect our lives).  Some issues I enjoy exploring are the impacts of industrialized agriculture, environmental changes and marginalized populations, and environmental policy making.

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One thought on “Closing the disconnect between the food you eat and where it comes from

  1. OMG, castor sacs from beavers? It kind of boggles the imagination to think about how they discovered the value of castoreum….

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