Have you ever noticed the ingredient “natural flavor” listed on a food label? I’ve read it on the label of ground turkey that I purchased in the past, as well as listed on various other food items.

I didn’t think much of it and now I realize that I was definitely uninformed. Perhaps there was a part of me that did not want to question it, but I did think that it meant what it said, that it truly was natural.

I have since learned by reading “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser, that natural flavoring is anything but natural. Natural flavor is a man-made additive, and it makes processed food and fast food taste outstanding. It’s not the only additive that flavors our (processed and fast) food, but it sure does a great job.

That wonderful taste is what keeps you coming back and buying more. But where does that taste come from? Are there world class chefs creating new recipes for the processed food giants? Not exactly; you see, that natural flavor is concocted by scientists, naturally called “flavorists”. 😉 They are employed by the American flavor industry, which incidentally, has an annual revenue of approximately 1.4 billion dollars.

Flavor is where it’s at. If you don’t like how a food tastes, you aren’t going to buy it again. On the other hand, if you love the taste, it will hook you in and keep you strung out until you get your fix again. Why is taste so important? When you think about it, it is the #1, most important quality in food. I can attest to this fact since I’ve been sick with a severe cold for over a week. I haven’t been able to taste anything, so it didn’t matter what I ate. When your taste (derived mainly from smell) is present though, it rules what you eat, or at least, what you want to eat.

So-called natural flavor is produced in laboratories to give flavor to processed foods that lose almost all flavor through the processes of freezing, dehydrating, and canning. It is made from infinitesimal amounts of chemicals, or more so a collection of gases.

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There may be a combination of thousands of gases that make up one complex aroma (such as coffee). It is actually these gases that we smell as they are released from the food while we chew it, and thereby we taste the flavor of our food. I have learned that our taste buds (whether tasting whole or processed foods) make up only a small percentage of our actual taste; most “taste” comes from our olfactory senses.

There is such a tiny amount of this “natural flavor” that is needed to flavor food that it is very cheap for the processed food manufacturers to use. For example, in comparison to most other processed foods, sodas contain a larger amount of these flavorings. It only costs $0.005 to flavor a can of Coke. When you begin reading the ingredients of the foods you eat, you will find that “natural flavor” is listed as an ingredient in most processed foods in America today. It is present in almost all fast food.

Here’s an astonishing example at Wendy’s. On this page under “Add an Item”, I chose the menu category, “Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers”, and the menu item, “Steakhouse Double Melt” to list the ingredients of their Steakhouse Double Melt. Now, I’m not trying to pick on Wendy’s (this used to be one of my favorite places!), however of the list of 18 items that make up the burger (bacon is listed twice, which makes a total of 19 on the page), 10 of them contain the ingredient “natural flavor”. Out of the 8 that do not list “natural flavor” in their ingredients, 3 do not have any “ingredients” at all:

  1. 2 hamburger patties
  2. Bacon (3 strips)
  3. Mustard
  4. American cheese slice
  5. Pepperjack cheese slice
  6. Onion (no ingred.)
  7. Tomato (no ingred.)
  8. Lettuce (no ingred.)

So, this is one of the reasons I always loved the food at Wendy’s, the others being sugar, fat, flour, and HFCS (high fructose corn syrup). Yes, the food tastes fabulous, however I was addicted to it, and it gave me extra fat to carry around with me.

The bottom-line question is, “is natural flavor harmful to my health?”. I don’t know, I haven’t researched the health aspect specifically yet, however my common sense tells me if I eat food that contains this ingredient, I am eating highly processed, and actually chemically processed ingredients. I guess the way that I would approach it is with the question “is natural flavor going to benefit my health?”. The answer for me is no, now that I know exactly what it is.

Some of this information can be very frustrating (at least for me it is), because this is yet another ingredient that is present in so many processed foods. For the most part, if I am eating at my healthiest and eating only whole foods, then I am fine. However, I have just learned that “natural flavor” is in the protein powder that I use. This is an ingredient that I did not look for and I bought the protein powder before learning about it.

Granted, protein powder is a processed food source, and I can get protein from whole foods instead. I don’t have to have protein powder, and in fact, I prefer whole foods anyway. It still is a bit frustrating to me, though. Is it true that ignorance is bliss? Sometimes it almost seems so, however I won’t give up on learning and improving no matter what.

In closing, yet another book that I strongly recommend reading is Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. Most of the information I wrote about here is based on what I learned in this book. There is so much more to learn though, as the topic of “natural flavor” is only a small part of what is included in this fascinating book.


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