In one of those naked PR moves, Nestlé announced yesterday it would only use natural flavourings and colours in its candy. Which means it’s a good time to remember that is “natural” does not mean better. The natural stuff is just as processed, and comes from places like beaver butts and insects.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with natural flavourings and dyes that come from less-than-savoury animal parts — unless you’re a strict vegetarian. But castoreum (the vanilla flavour from beaver butts) and Natural Red 4 (red dye from squashed scale insects) are good checks on our visceral reactions to words like “natural” and “artificial”.
In the US, the Food and Drug Administration has strict definitions for natural and artificial flavours. The short explanation is that natural flavours are derived from plant or animal material, while artificial flavours are synthesised by chemists in a lab.
“Natural” may evoke those idyllic images of leisurely roasted coffee beans or hand-chopped strawberries, but nope, full stop. It’s all chemists in a lab. Extracting pure flavour molecules from food requires solvents and preservatives. Natural and artificial flavourings alike can contain dozens of ingredients that aren’t listed in final packaging. Those ingredients do have to come from the FDA’s Generally Recognised As Safe list, which is exactly as the name implies.
And a natural flavouring doesn’t have to correspond with its natural ingredient. There’s an entire category called WONF, or With Other Natural Flavours. Raspberry flavour, for example, can be enhanced with strawberry, jasmine and orris root. What you taste is not what you get.
None of this is a big secret. Natural flavourings are an issue that manage to unite the crunchiest of the crunchy with the people who like to shake their heads at crunchy hippies. Here’s even Food Babe, the woman perhaps most (in)famous for getting the “yoga mat chemical” out of Subway bread, going on a tear about natural flavours.
We can all do with less processed food. But let’s not pretend that swapping in natural flavours in a chocolate bar makes it any better.
Picture: Lion bar via Nestlé