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'Natural' flavor: Not so natural

Chuck, I’ve noticed “natural flavor” as an ingredient in just about every label of the foods I eat, from soups and salad dressings to yogurt, juices and meat. What is “natural flavor,” and is it truly good for us? – John J., Atlanta

Once upon a time, “artificially flavored” terminology sprinkled ingredients lists and labels, virtually without question. In a healthy organic age, “naturally flavored” is the marketing terminology of choice.

But the question is, What exactly does “natural flavor” mean?

First, the term “natural” is not synonymous with “organic.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service defines “natural” as “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as ‘no artificial ingredients; minimally processed’).”

The problem is that foods (including flavorings) labeled “natural” are not subject to government controls; hence, “natural” can be a label of avoidance – unlike “organic.”

FSIS defines “natural flavorings” on meat labels this way: “Spices (e.g., black pepper, basil and ginger), spice extracts, essential oils, oleoresins, onion powder, garlic powder, celery powder, onion juice and garlic juice are all ingredients that may be declared on labeling as ‘natural flavor,’ ‘flavor’ or ‘flavoring.’ Spices, oleoresins, essential oils and spice extracts are listed in the Food and Drug Administration regulations.”

Outside of the meat industry, however, under the Code of Federal Regulations, “natural flavoring” has a much broader definition: “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.”

To the chagrin of vegetarians, vegans and those who are lactose-intolerant, “natural flavor” can include beef and dairy byproducts, so make sure the label either is absent of “natural flavor” or says “non-animal” or “non-dairy” natural or organic flavors.

By definition, therefore, any added flavor other than “natural flavors” to a product must be artificial, or synthetically created. The most prolific food flavor enhancer in processed foods and fast foods is monosodium glutamate, or MSG, a sodium salt of glutamic acid (a nonessential amino acid) produced largely by the fermentation of starch, sugar cane, sugar beets and molasses. Since its initial use decades ago, consumers have complained that MSG causes ailments from headaches and chest pains to obesity and chronic illnesses.

Despite the Food and Drug Administration’s defense of MSG as “generally recognized as safe,” its use remains controversial. That is why the FDA still requires that MSG be listed on the labels of all products in which it is an additive. But food producers have dodged MSG federal regulations by substituting other ingredients classified under “natural flavors,” which can have the same makeup. Even the FDA considers labels such as “No MSG” or “No Added MSG” to be misleading if the product contains “natural flavor” ingredients such as hydrolyzed protein, which may result in the formation of free glutamate. That can join with free sodium to form MSG.

Phil Lempert, food editor of the “Today” show, reported that Gary Reineccius, a professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota, says the distinction between natural and artificial flavorings is minuscule. In fact, natural flavors often are no healthier and even cost more.

Reineccius explained: “Artificial flavorings are simpler in composition and potentially safer because only safety-tested components are utilized. … Another difference is cost. The search for natural sources of chemicals often requires that a manufacturer go to great lengths to obtain a given chemical. … This natural chemical is identical to the version made in an organic chemist’s laboratory, yet it is much more expensive than the synthetic alternative.”

My big question is this: If the food industry has nothing to hide, “natural flavors” are not harmful and ingredient labels are meant to disclose real ingredients, why not just specify in each product what is represented in its particular “natural flavor”?

The bottom line is that even with all the new regulations and organic certifications, “natural flavor” is confusing, misleading and costly – to your health and pocketbook. I simply call it the covert cousin of MSG and try to avoid it with all other non-organic additives.

Read labels carefully. Organic flavors are on the rise, but the process of inclusion is slow, so “buyer beware.” If organic flavors are an ingredient in the product, it likely will use the term “organic,” because health producers are privy to the terminology war. Settle only for 100 percent organic, including with flavorings.

If you must use flavorings in your cooking, then use organic flavor concentrates, extracts, oils, syrups or powders available through your local health food stores or grocers. They often are certified organic, kosher, vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free and contain no allergens. They’re perfect in most baking and beverage applications.

Some food producers’ evasion of truthful disclosure under the cloak of “natural flavor” reminds me of the wisdom of H.G. Wells, who once said, “Advertising is legalized lying.”

For a more holistic medical approach, my wife, Gena, and I recommend Sierra Integrative Medical Center, in Reno, Nev. The people there are pioneers in integrative medicine. They blend the best of conventional medicine with the best alternative therapies.