Natural Flavors, Exposed!

Before my family went gluten free, I didn’t read nutritional labels very carefully. That’s not exactly true. Let me go back a bit further.

Before having kids I barely glanced at labels. Then I got pregnant and suddenly I started paying attention. By the time Bunky was old enough to eat solid foods, I was reading labels pretty closely. Like most anyone who has the luxury and time to think of such things, I wanted my kid to eat as healthily and naturally as possible.

Reading labels is eye opening, as anyone who does such things knows. Artificial this and natural that and food coloring and additives and high fructose corn syrup and GMO’s and – well, you get the idea.

Once Bunky was diagnosed with celiac, I didn’t just read labels, I scrutinized them. It was hard and exhausting at first, but I’m grateful for it because now I know what I’m eating. For the most part…

For a while it was enough to buy as much organic as we could afford, stick to as many whole foods as possible, and then make sure the ingredients on whatever processed foods we selected didn’t make me cringe.

4 ingredient treats. No natural flavors.

4 ingredient raw bars. No natural flavors.

When I’d see natural flavors, I’d pause for a moment, almost always drifing back to a New Yorker article I read years ago that opened my eyes to the idea that “natural” wasn’t exactly natural. Meaning, most natural flavors are made in a lab, they just happen to derive from natural ingredients.

Still, I didn’t hesitate too much. The word natural has such a benign connotation. Which is pretty genius marketing, actually.

Then I happened across this article on Yahoo, “The 11 Scariest Things In Your Food.” Read it at your own risk – meaning, if you really don’t want to know what’s in your food, you might want to skip this. All of the things that made the list are pretty foul, but it was the last one that really made me pause (gag).

I have three words for you that will change the way you view natural flavors forever:

Beaver Anal Glands

Yes, that’s right. The secretions from a beaver’s anal glands are the natural in some “natural flavors” in particular vanilla, raspberry, and strawberry.

beaver

A toy beaver, contemplating real raspberries.

The scientific word for it is castoreum. But you won’t see that word listed on any ingredient lists, for obvious reasons.

Apparently, Jamie Oliver brought castoreum mainstream on the David Letterman show by insinuating it might be in vanilla ice cream, among other things. Afterwards there was a big uproar about where castoreum was lurking, because understandably people were grossed out (and food PR companies were working double time). But therein lies the problem. Castoreum could be lurking in any natural flavoring you see listed on a label. The FDA conveniently allows these bizarre ingredients to hide under the “natural flavors” umbrella. Sure, you could call or email a company to ask, but do you honestly think any business in their right mind would admit to such a thing? Um, nope.

It’s one thing to say, okay I’m not going to eat any more raspberry or vanilla candies or syrups, but what about an organic cereal like this one?

cereal

Notice the name, Crunchy Vanilla. Sigh. I really like this cereal and so does Little Guy. But check out the ingredients:

ingredients

Natural vanilla flavor is wedged between flax seeds and buckwheat flour. Notice that it says “Vegan” at the bottom. If there really is castoreum in it, this would actually NOT be vegan. [Notice that it also says, “made in a facility” with wheat, etc. If you read this post, you’d know my stance on this, but for the record, Bunky doesn’t eat this cereal anyhow.]

The problem is, I’ll never know what’s in this particular natural vanilla flavor. Maybe I’m eating beaver butt with my cereal, maybe not.

When I started doing some research, I came across many articles, most of which were of the “it’s so gross!” variety, but my favorite one by far was a more thoughtful take on the whole thing (with some cheeky commentary as well, I mean, how can anyone resist?!) on an awesome blog called Life in a Skillet. I completely agree with Maggie on many of her points, including this one:

“The point I find unacceptable is not in the use of castoreum; that’s a completely different debate. What’s objectionable is the complete lack of transparency behind the FDA’s “natural flavors” designation… Food manufacturer’s intellectual property is protected, sure, but consumers lose any way to know exactly what we are consuming.”

And this quote is what got me hooked in the first place:

“I’ve got to be honest – I can’t help but wonder what genius figured out a beaver’s behind tastes like raspberry.” [And, for the record, vanilla.]

So be warned, before you dive into a bag of gluten free jelly beans, or any other food – organic products included – that lists “natural flavors” as an ingredient, you may find a little more nature than you might have liked.

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38 thoughts on “Natural Flavors, Exposed!

    • Thanks, Celiac Kiddo, for the great shout-out. Heather, to be honest, the ingredients in processed foods are more scary to me sometimes. At least castoreum comes from an animal, right? It all breaks down to proteins, carbs, and fats, presumably. But if you look at a label and see a food coloring labeled “lake” it is a petroleum product. Bigger eeew then beaver butt to me! But that’s probably a different blog post . . .

      • Thanks for your comments, both Heather and Maggie!

        It’s funny, at first realization, I was more horrified by the beaver aspect than say, food dyes – which I know are much worse – and I think it must be because the idea of eating something so intimate from an animal is visceral. I can see it, imagine it, and feel grossed out. But things like red 3 or blue 1 lake (both of which are in my daughter’s rainbow sprinkles) sound so placid and familiar, even though they are anything but. I realize it’s so often language and the images words evoke that cause our initial reaction.

        Would I rather NOT eat beaver secretions? Yeah, I would rather not. But mostly, like Maggie states in her post on Life in a Skillet, I am most disturbed by the FDA having the right to hide ingredients in plain sight.

        Glad that this post sparked some interesting comments and hopefully I haven’t ruined anyone’s favorite breakfast cereal or candy. For the record, I’m still eating my vanilla one 🙂

  1. Urgh! That is shocking. I wonder if it’s used over here in the UK as well… probably! We are currently in the middle of a ‘horse meat scandal’ – not sure if this story has made its way across the pond? Horse meat has been found some major supermarkets’ processed ready meals, such as lasagne, burgers etc. Thankfully I’d never buy anything like that but lots of people do. It’s horrifying that they don’t even know where their meat has come from. They’ve also found pork in beef products! But idea of beaver bum is just foul! It just makes you wonder if you can trust any food that you buy?!

    • Oh dear, the horse meat thing sounds pretty awful. But there are lots of different scares here, too.

      I’m beginning to think the beaver bum idea is less foul than other unnatural stuff that ends up in our food. I just came across this article about two moms who filed a petition to Kraft foods trying to get them to remove two yellow dyes (which are derived from petroleum) from their very popular Mac and Cheese (gluten). In the UK those dyes are NOT allowed, yet they continue to put them in OURS because they can…
      http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/03/16/kraft-macaroni-and-cheese-contains-harmful-dyes

      Bottom line is I’d like to know exactly WHAT is in my food, natural flavors included. Until then, I guess all we can do is read labels carefully, trust no one (ha), and eat as naturally as possible.

  2. This reminds me of the cochineal blowup that Starbucks went through last year. Consumers were so upset to learn their pink-colored drink was made that way by crushed beetles that Starbucks had to reformulate. They’d used it because it was a “natural” flavor rather than an artificial one but the strategy didn’t pan out. When my mom found out about this she freaked and went to check her Twizzlers immediately to make sure their red color didn’t also come from bugs.

    I feel like there was an NPR or This American Life show at some point about the people who make these ingredients and flavors and all of the labeling rules they’ve managed to build in their favor…I wanted to find the link and recommend it but it’s nowhere to be found. The scary flavor manufacturers must have hidden it from me!

    • Yes, I remember hearing about that! No one wants to eat bugs, but food coloring, which is made from petroleum and probably worse for everyone in the long run, is better received. It’s funny, because not too long ago (um, like last week) I was feeling the same way. No bugs, no beaver butt, etc. But I was fine eating colored sprinkles and Fruity Pebbles. Yet the more I think about it, and the more I read (always dangerous, ha) the less I want the artificial stuff either. Sigh.

      I am totally fascinated (and repulsed) by those “taste makers” or whatever they call them. It’s so crazy secretive and those big companies seem to have so much control over what goes into our food.

      About your mom’s Twizzler habit, fortunately for her there is nothing natural about them, ha! But wheat flour is the first ingredient, isn’t that bizarre?

      • Yes! It’s totally bizarre! I have a feeling that even if my mom were ever to be diagnosed with celiac disease she’d refuse to go gluten-free on the basis of her love of Twizzlers.

        I’ve often tried to just not think about what’s in my food, and that makes it easier. Needing to research ingredients does make you more conscious of putting gross chemicals into your body…but then again, if I’m purposefully seeking out an ingredient called “xanthan gum” to add to my baked goods, does it matter all that much if I’m also eating beaver butt?

  3. It is just plain sad where our food is derived from these days. When our parents had “fast food” back in the day, it was exactly just that…fast. Nowadays we don’t eat fast food because we have added so much crap to it, it barely contains food. So now we do our best to read labels and buy organic and we are still in the dark. Have we ruined all foods? Is nothing what it used to be? I had someone question the baking soda and baking powder in one of my recipes the other day, and I thought “oh god no” not that too! Sure enough check this out…http://www.crunchybetty.com/the-great-baking-soda-anti-hoax

    I’m starting to get very tired trying to keep up with it all. I think we have this organic, non GMO, etc, labeling thing all backwards. Companies that are putting crap in their products should HAVE to label it (like warning labels on cigarettes – THIS COULD KILL YOU)..and if your product is full of good nutritional items labeling should be minimal. Sounds to easy right?

  4. O.M.G. I love raspberry flavored stuff so I’m sure I’ve ingested beaver bottoms. I am deathly afraid to read my labels now. GAH!!!! How can I “unknow” this?!! 😀

  5. Isn’t it just so silly the crap they put into our foods. SIGH! We work so hard to keep our kids safe from their allergens and then we also have to worry about this gross stuff. I will seriously think twice now when I see that. I am glad I didn’t have the job to find out what the Beavers behind tastes like, phew! Thanks for linking up at GFF!

    • Welcome to the pathetic world of American food labeling 😦 That’s how. They can write Gluten Free if the ingredients are gluten free, but the facility itself doesn’t have to be. There is a lot of controversy, as you of course know, about if this is safe or not. Bunky’s doctors and nutritionist say it’s fine… but I know many other people disagree. We DO buy products “made in a facility” and so far have not had any issues, though I do try to seek out those that are made in GF facilities whenever possible. This is another reason why Australia rocks!

      • Gosh, that’s too confusing and not really very safe seeing as the term “combined production facilities” can harbour everything from a slim maybe to a very wide definite..

        I know I can’t eat something that isn’t completely GF, but level of sensitivity is individual of course. Either way one should be completely informed of what the risks are of getting sick!

        I hope they pull their heads in and straighten up the labelling rules. If we can’t rely on labelling, what have we got?!

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