A few weeks ago, I wrote about aspartame to kick off a series of articles taking a closer look at the most common food additives. This week’s “What IS That” investigates “natural” flavours. So what does “natural” really mean?
Where do they come from?
To be labelled “natural”, a flavouring only needs to be derived from an organism rather than created from scratch in a lab. “Natural flavouring” can mean pretty much anything – even MSG, monosodium glutamate! The flavours are extracted using chemicals, heat and other nutrient-destroying processes.
To get a sense of just how far food manufacturers are willing to go, consider castoreum. Castoreum is found in loads of fruit flavoured products like candy, yoghurt, ice cream, soda and iced tea, and falls under the banner of “natural flavouring” on the label.
You might want to sit down for this part: Castoreum is extracted from the anal glands of adult beavers. You read that right. Food manufacturers are calling beaver bum juice “natural flavour” on your food labels! I’m not joking. (Yes, I just said “beaver bum juice”)
That’s Really Gross! So Now What?
“Natural flavours” are often chemically identical to “artificial flavours”, regardless of the origin of the ingredients used. Both are created by “flavourists” in a laboratory to sabotage your tastebuds into saying “YUM! That’s delicious!” and have no nutritional value. If you’ve gotten used to those highly processed flavours, learning to love the way real food actually tastes can be challenging.
Here are a few tips to get you started.
1. Make friends with your kitchen!
The best way to be sure you know what’s in your food is to make it yourself from natural ingredients. You will be amazed how easy it is to create your own juices, smoothies, cereals, cookies, cakes, and even chocolate bars using nothing but living, plant-based foods and authentically natural flavours. Browse the recipes section of my website for loads of tasty, additive-free recipes you can try at home.
2. Sweeten it yourself!
Start with pure, raw ingredients and experiment creating your own recipes using authentic natural sweeteners. By that I mean, sweeteners that are actually found in nature and taste delicious with little or no processing. No lab coats required! Some of my favourites are date sugar, coconut sugar and honey. Stevia is another popular sweetener many people enjoy, although some people – including me – are put off by the aftertaste.
3. Thirsty? Try water!
Some of the worst offenders when it comes to “mystery” additives (including the really gross ones) are fruit juices and sodas. Be prepared when you leave the house and bring a big bottle of filtered water with you. Take a good hearty swig before you reach for the “beaver butt excretions” shelf of your corner store and see if you still have a hankering for that iced tea. You can flavour your water with fresh lemon juice to give you an extra boost of vitamin C and enhance your digestion. I like making my own iced tea from leftover herbal tea and water from steamed rhubarb, sweetened with a little bit of honey.
I’d love to hear your feedback, or your own strategies for delivering that “Yum” factor without the help of a huge team of chemists and professional food tasters. Tell me all about it in the comments below!