Another tag trap: ' Natural flavor ' does not mean (almost) anything

Pay attention and you'll see something strange in the supermarket. Food brands begin to promote their products with hard-to-understand claims. For example, to the topical "100% vegetal", the oat drink of a well-known brand is presented to the buyer with two curious words: "Natural flavor". What does that mean? The truth is that we do not agree on what is referred to as brief message, but quickly fall prey to the impulse to put it in the supermarket cart.

According to a survey that the company Ipsos made last year, in which consumers from 28 countries were asked what they understood as "natural flavor", the diversity of opinions is the norm. Some of the participants said it was all that was made without artificial ingredients; Others, which were products 100% from nature and, most, which was a synonym for healthy. The key to the phenomenon seems to be in the last answer. Is it not that the food industry is benefiting from the fact that this label makes us believe that its product is healthier, when it is not true? It's not being misconceived, but we all know situations like this.

Acceptance, trust and purchase, that means ' natural flavor '

The chemical engineer and director of the Ainia Technology Centre, Miguel Blasco, explains that there is no specific legislation in the European Union that defines the term. "Although we can say that, roughly speaking, it is something that reminds us of the product of origin, a concept formed by elements that generate an impulse of acceptance, trust and purchase. That is what we detect from our market studies, that the consumer demands more and more natural or minimalist foods in their conception and that the claim ' natural ' is an upward trend, ' explains Blasco. As much as the natural is not always good.

The interest of the food industry to place that labelling on their products is clear, and fits all kinds of packages: in the juices, broths, pastries, pâté, ice cream, fried tomatoes, cheeses, creams, jam, chocolate , dairy, that sector in which it is so difficult to know what one should choose... But neither natural flavors are so good (they don't have to be neither healthy nor ecological) nor the artificial ones are so bad (sometimes even safer). In any case, the debate emerges from an extraordinarily broad definition.

According to the American Flavor Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA), the natural flavor is "comes from natural sources, whether they are vegetables or animals (meat, dairy), through a prolonged extraction process, while Artificial, even if they have the same chemical composition as the natural ones, they are those whose source arrives from the laboratory. " But, given the non-existence of Community regulation, each manufacturer interprets in his own way what is a "natural flavor", and that can have consequences.

Natural flavors tend to be subject to greater food safety hazards than chemicals, because they move in conditions that are not always controlled. "For example, its supply chain is much more complex and generally has more control and traceability elements than artificial flavors," explains Blasco, who reflects on the tendency to reject chemistry and everything that has to do with the Technology.

Only with ' natural flavors ', there would be no bread with tomato

It seems contradictory, but the engineer praises the potential of technology to get more natural food. "It allows us to extract smells and flavors from raw materials that are in nature, but also artificially incorporate natural flavors into foods that originally did not contain them, substituting chemical additives," he explains. "It also serves to generate conditions (caused through biotechnology or taking advantage of environmental situations) that lead to a series of aromas or flavors of this condition that, in other conditions, would not occur (such as cheeses), "adds the engineer.

It is clear that the natural does not have to be always better, but it is not free of chemistry. Blasco recalls the case of dairy desserts, an example of artificial aroma and flavor. Initially, natural spices were used as flavoring and flavoring to make them, but the industry had to reverse. "They generated potential problems from the microbiological point of view, so the industry opted for artificial chemical additives to offer the product with all the guarantees to the consumer," he says.

On the other hand, "non-natural" flavors not only arise in the laboratory. "For example, is the aroma and flavor of a freshly baked bread natural? The answer is no, because it responds to a chemical process that results when, after baking the bread, chemical reactions are produced that generate the characteristic odour. and the taste of the ham? Nor, its flavor is a consequence of the chemical reactions produced by microorganisms that, through enzymes, act on proteins and generate the characteristic aroma, taste and texture. Cheese--that undeserved enemy of diets--is another example. Its natural aroma is a consequence of its natural fermentation process, "says Blasco.

If it is for the taste, the difference is minimal (if any)

University of Minnesota Professor Gary Reineccius explained in an article in Scientific American that there is little difference between the chemical compositions of natural and artificial aromas: "Both are made in a laboratory By a trained professional, who combines the chemicals in their correct proportions. That is, it uses natural chemicals to make natural flavorings and synthetic chemicals to make artificial flavors, and the latter are made with the same formula as those you would use to make a natural flavor, because otherwise that Flavoring would not have the desired taste. I mean, the only difference is in the source. "

The expert also mentioned the cost of making a natural and another artificial flavor, something that is not always justified by the quality of the final product. Reineccius Set example the taste of coconut. Natural flavorings depend on a chemical called Massoia lactone, which comes from the bark of the Massoia tree, which grows in Malaysia. Well, collecting this natural chemical kills the tree because you have to remove the crust to get the lactone. In addition, it is a process that uses a lot of labor and high technology, so it is quite expensive. However, according to the scientist, this natural chemist is identical to the version made in a laboratory, so in the end the consumer is paying much more money for a product that is neither safer nor better quality.

The story is repeated in a multitude of products. There are many natural flavors on the market, but the most common, according to engineer Miguel Blasco, are chocolate, strawberry and vanilla, possibly the most popular flavor in the world. Not only is it in sweets, ice cream and biscuits, but it is a flavor that is added to other foods because it improves the perception of other flavors, such as chocolate, fruits and coffee.

The vanilla flavor is probably the most popular in the world, and costs 3,000 euros a kilo of natural extract

And, despite being so popular, you may never have eaten a product that contains natural vanilla extract, since it is obtained from difficult-to-collect orchids, which only grow in a few tropical areas of the planet (Madagascar, Tahiti, Indonesia, Réunion Island and Mexico), which makes it impossible to supply the annual demand that the planet needs, which are more than 16,000 tonnes. What you may have eaten are substitutes such as castoreum extract (it is still considered natural because it comes from the animal) or those created in the laboratory, with almost identical taste results.

If you are fortunate to have tried a product made with vanilla from the natural plant (at about 3,000 euros a kilo of extract), you may have experienced an incredible sensory experience. But it'll just be a taste. If you want to know the amount of sugars, fats and calories that the food has in question, you will have to read the label, because no one makes sure it is exactly good for your health. And that's what's important, isn't it?