The tongue is covered in taste receptors that identify the five basic tastes: salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami. Taste and the other senses play an important role in our enjoyment and digestion of food. The smell, sight, and taste of food—especially delicious food—stimulate the body to prepare to receive the food by producing digestive ‘juices’ such as saliva in the mouth and hydrochloric acid in the stomach.
When food is processed, it loses its natural flavor, and when it sits on a store shelf for weeks, natural chemicals in food begin to deteriorate, reducing their shelf life and affecting the way they taste. That’s where the flavor industry comes in.
In the food industry, flavors can be categorized as artificial flavors, natural flavors, and spices. Flavors are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are either “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) substances or food additives, which must be approved by the FDA.
You may already be aware of the health hazards and addictive qualities associated with certain flavor additives such as monosodium glutamate and various sources of sodium. You also may have noticed that many food labels list the terms “artificial flavors,” “natural flavors,” or “contains artificial and natural flavors”—without disclosing exactly what those flavors are.
Artificial flavors are additives designed to mimic the taste of natural ingredients. They are a cheap way for manufacturers to make something taste like strawberry, for example, without actually using any real strawberries.
The FDA defines artificial flavoring thusly:
“The term artificial flavor or artificial flavoring means any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof.”
In other words, ingredients that comprise artificial flavors are chemicals that were not originally sourced from nature.
Artificial flavors are proprietary chemical formulas owned by the flavor companies that create them. The demand for top-secret recipes made by flavor manufacturers (such as Givaudan) has produced a multi-billion industry, an industry shrouded in secrecy—and with good reason. Flavor companies employ a range of experts from chemists to chefs to ‘cook up’ novel flavors from an assortment of 1,300 FDA-approved ingredients. They don’t want to disclose their recipes, and consumers don’t like knowing that the delicious chicken flavor in their Stouffer’s dinner comes from a mix of chemicals rather than the real thing.
Unfortunately, the FDA does not require flavor companies to disclose ingredients as long as all the ingredients have been deemed GRAS. This protects the proprietary formulas but allows for many chemicals to be hidden under the word ‘flavor’ on the ingredients list.
For consumers, this is unfortunate, since even food manufacturers are not aware of the specific ingredients that comprise the flavors used in their products.
Artificial flavors are known to cause many adverse reactions, including:
- Allergic reactions
- Chest pain
- DNA damage
- Depression of the nervous system
- Brain damage
Other symptoms include seizures, nausea, dizziness, and more. Without labeling the specific ingredients in artificial flavors, identifying the root cause of your symptom(s) is near impossible.
According to the USDA National Organic Program:
“Aliphatic acyclic and acyclic alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, carboxylic acids, and related esters, lactones, ketals, and acetals comprise more than 700 of the 1,323 chemically defined flavoring substances in the United States. Additional structural categories include aromatic, heteroaromatic, and heterocyclic substances with characteristic organoleptic properties.”
Many artificial flavors include ingredients that are also used to make artificial colors, which are made from highly processed crude oil. Hence, the numerous health effects associated with them are not surprising. What is astounding, however, is that there is little documented research and practically no studies published on the effects of artificial flavors.
The food industry has bombarded our taste buds with flavor. Those who regularly eat—or are addicted to—processed foods lose their taste for real food. We lay blame on sugar and fat for the worldwide obesity epidemic, but ultimately, isn’t the flavor industry largely responsible for making processed food taste good?
Lisa Tsakos is a nutritionist and educator specializing in weight management. She has been featured on the Discovery Channel, numerous radio programs, and is a contributor to various publications. This article was first published on Naturally Savvy.