Saturday, December 10, 2011

The difference between raspberries & beaver backsides.

Would raspberry by any other name taste as sweet? Anyone that has dealt with the sleight of hand performed by the food manufacturers on product labels knows that the industry is well aware of the importance of a name. When MSG became unpopular, labelers sought ways to clean up their lists and thus the parade of disguises for that popular additive began. I’m sure you have heard of the campaign to rebaptize high fructose corn syrup as corn sugar. In the minds of the producers of these ingredients, perception is all that matters. As a person that has had to read labels for years, I have become pretty familiar with the jargon. Similar to real estate ads, it helps to read between the lines, and you learn to steer clear of certain phrases  like autolyzed protein, ‘modified’ anything, ‘needs a little TLC’, or natural. Wait, natural? Yep, you read that right.

I have found that just because a label says “All Natural” on the front, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t flip it over to read the ingredients. And while I quickly learned to keep moving at the sight of many names, I was a little slower to learn about “natural flavors”. "Natural flavor" was the doe-eyed Bambi of my ingredient lists. I admit I sometimes wondered why they tacked flavor on the end. I had to learn the hard way (after a violent allergic reaction) that in this case of 'natural', Bambi might bite back, but it wasn't until recently that I began to learn the science, and the fiction, of flavors.

Lately there has been a lot of talk about beaver backsides, and in case you haven’t heard and think that I just derailed, read on. In some cases natural flavor has a lot less to do with the listed name than you’d ever dream. For example, natural vanilla, (strawberry) or raspberry flavor can be derived from castoreum, which is dried secretions from a beaver’s anal gland. In researching this article, I came across the FDA’s “Everything Added to Food in the United States” (EAFUS) website, which does categorize castoreum liquid and extract as EAF which means: “There is reported use of the substance, but it has not yet been assigned for toxicology research.”. Technically, a beaver’s backside is as natural as it gets, but it is NOT naturally called vanilla or raspberry.

Now, it is obvious why castoreum is taking so much heat. The idea of licking a vanilla ice cream cone flavored with beaver anal extract is sure to make people pause. It might, or might not, not be harmful, but it clearly illustrates that even a natural flavor may have been processed extensively to create the latest taste sensation and, in the case of additive sensitive individuals, that is certainly cause for caution. It also drives home the point that labelers often employ creative license when it comes to the verbiage of ingredient lists.

“FlavorIngredients” By George A. Burdock, Giovanni Fenaroli (Prof. Dr.)
FDA’s “Everything Added to Food in the United States” (EAFUS)
JamieOliver on David Letterman
HuffingtonPost with a link to 60 Minutes Givaudan segment *reference to strawberry or vanilla at 5:21


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