Many fascinating ingredients can be found under the blanket term of “natural flavorings” on food labels. By definition, natural flavorings are any kind of by-product or extract derived from spices, fruits, vegetables, plants, dairy, meats, or seafood that is used primarily for flavoring rather than nutritional value. The word “natural” here is used to denote that some of the chemical additives are taken from real life foods – it does not mean that the ingredients themselves are 100% natural. Both natural and artificial flavors are generally created in labs by a “flavorist” whose job is to construct chemical compounds that taste appealing and resemble real-life food counterparts.
An article from the Wall Street Journal, for instance, illustrates the now frequent use of “cellulose” in processed foods ranging from muffins to ice cream. But what does “cellulose” in this case refer to? In most cases, the powdered cellulose in these foods is made from wood pulp – the same kind used to make paper or cardboard. It’s not dangerous to consume, as cellulose obtained from any plant is virtually the same, it’s just nutritionally empty filler used to add bulk to food without adding calories.
On a more disturbing note, however, are the “natural flavorings” found in orange juice. The novel, Squeezed, written by Alissa Hamilton, a fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, illustrates how orange juice, from concentrate or not, is re-flavored with “flavor packs” derived from the same kind of essences and chemicals used to scent perfume – lab created chemicals totally unlike those found in nature.
And perhaps most upsetting of all is the curious case of low-end processed foods with raspberry and vanilla flavoring. One of the primarily “natural” ingredients behind those flavors is castoreum, otherwise known as the fluid obtained from the castor sacs of the North American Beaver. It’s a safe, FDA-approved additive commonly used in food and beverages.
The story behind how scientists discovered its usefulness in mimicking vanilla and raspberry flavorings is as of yet unknown, but it’s a fun scenario to imagine nonetheless.
None of these “natural flavorings” have any proven health risks or dangers which is part of why they’re so ubiquitous in modern processed foods. Of course, that doesn’t make them any less unappetizing and cringe-inducing at face value. It’s just more proof that for those of you who really want to have complete control over what you eat, the best way to do it is cook for yourself!