“Natural” can run the gamut from bugs to beaver butts

Posted by
January 12, 2012

When flavors and colors are described as “natural,” what does that mean, exactly? Sure, it sounds benign, but in the arcane world of food labeling, things are seldom what they seem. In fact, some “natural flavors” are in the ‘say it ain’t so’ category. And remember, “natural flavors” are typically proprietary information, meaning no matter how hard you might try, you won’t be able to find out exactly what they’re made of.

Of course, if you’d prefer to go along your merry way consuming all kinds of processed foods and treats without giving a thought to what you’re really eating, you need read no further. But if you’re even the least bit concerned that the products that look so good might not be what you think they are, here are a few facts about some “natural” ingredients that might just make you think twice.

Castoreum: If the name doesn’t sound all that appealing to begin with, you might freak out when you learn this ingredient, which is used in a variety of foods and beverages including vanilla and raspberry flavorings, is really an extraction of the dried glands and secretions from a beaver’s rear end (and that’s putting it politely). In fact, if you’re thinking of going into the food business and need some “natural-flavor” castoreum for your ice cream, you need go nor further than castoreum.com, where Agro Laboratory, a “leading supplier” will sell you some. Just look for the photo of the cute little beaver swimming on the home page.

Cochineal and Carmine: These crimson, orange and red food colorings made from the bodies of a scaly female insect are used to color applesauce, baked goods, meats and spices. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, researchers at the University of Michigan found that this insect-derived “natural” color additive can cause life-threatening allergic reactions. The only good news about cochineal and carmine is that in 2009 the Food and Drug Administration required that these ingredients be specifically labeled when used in food and cosmetics. So if you don’t want any bug extract in your cupcakes, here’s yet another reason for reading the ingredient label.

Confectioner’s glaze: While this actually sounds like an appetizing ingredient, the name is where anything close to appealing ends. Also called shellac and resinous glaze, this ingredient is basically bug juice, obtained by scraping the secretions, called “lac,” of  a very small red bug off tree bark. The female secretes the sticky substance to make a protective shell to lay her eggs. Doesn’t sound so appetizing now, does it? Confectioner’s glaze is used in products such as candies (Hershey’s Milk Duds, for example), cosmetics and chewing gum.

MSG: If you were MSG you would want to hide too, and what better place then under the secret  “natural flavors” category. While ingredients such as “monosodium glutamate,” and “hydrolyzed” proteins are required by the FDA to be disclosed on the food label, over 40 other MSG-containing ingredients are not. Another place MSG can be sneaked into foods are in the ingredients “stock” and “broth,”  both of which can be used without naming what they are actually made of.

Tongue-tampering ingredients: Also labeled as “natural flavors” these are masking ingredients that mess with our taste buds. Wild Flavors, a mega flavor-development company out of Cincinnati, Ohio, has created “Resolver” which they describe as overcoming “undesirable taste components” by blocking the taste on the tongue. It does this by “attaching itself to the receptor” and not allowing the “taste sensation” to be perceived.  Taste-bud-deception concoctions such as these are used in both foods and beverages as well as supplements.

While what can be called a “natural” flavoring or color includes a lot, not all ingredients can be stuffed into that category. So what to do if your product has an undesirable name? If you’re the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) and you’re trying to pitch high fructose corn syrup (not a “natural” ingredient) to a public who wants no part of it, you could try to make a switcharoo to a better sounding one, a name that sounds natural and sweet like “corn sugar.”

What is “corn sugar”

First off, corn sugar is NOT high fructose corn syrup. Corn sugar is recognized by the FDA as its own unique product that contains not a bit of fructose. That’s right: as crazy as it sounds the CRA is attempting to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to a known ingredient that contains NO fructose. How confusing is that? Several years ago the CRA started sneaking the name “corn sugar” into print and television commercials when it was referring to HFCS, and in 2010, the group filed a petition with the FDA to “officially” change the name.

The FDA docket is still open and available for you to comment on this attempted marketing ploy.  Currently there are 1,280 public submissions posted online from thousands received by the agency, including a good number from Citizens for Health supporters. While not all comments are posted at the site, this is still a big change from last September when I first started reporting on this issue. At that time there were only 127 posted public comments.

This should be an extremely important issue to you if you care about the integrity of food labeling and your rights as a consumer, So please be sure to send in your comment to the FDA, which you can easily do by clicking here.

Linda Bonvie —  FoodIdentityTheft.com