What’s in that? The Dilemma of Artificial Flavor, Natural Flavor & Artificial Color

Zach Berger, MJLST Executive Editor

By law, most food is required to display nutritional information; if a product bears nutrient content or health messages, it must comply with specific requirements. However, as questioned by J.C. Horvath in volume 13 of MJLST, do these requirements really help consumers? For example, how often do you see “contains artificial flavor” or something similar listed on your groceries? The use of the non-descriptive descriptor phrases such as “artificial flavor,” “natural flavor,” and ‘artificial color” are common on food labels, yet do not help the average consumer. These phrases can substitute for over 3900 different food additives. The difference between artificial and natural flavors is much more technical than meaningful as both contain chemicals. The distinction comes from the source of the chemicals. In reality, there is little difference between the two, as both are made in a laboratory by a trained professional, a “flavorist,” who blends appropriate chemicals together in the right proportions.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does regulate these additives, but once a substance is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) it may be added to anything without further testing for any unexpected chemical interactions with other ingredients. Examples of ingredients that fall under GRAS[1] range from beef tallow, lard, and gelatin to ambergris a “waxy substance generated in the digestive system of and regurgitated by sperm whales” and Lcystine, “a dough conditioner often derived from duck feathers or human hair.” Basically, these non-descriptive descriptors don’t tell the consumer anything useful, so companies allowed to use these stand-ins?

The Food industry is generally reluctant about releasing all of its ingredients in order to prevent competitors from easily replicating their product. However, “the information that would actually be useful to consumers tends to be categorical information. Things such as whether or not the product conflicts with dietary restrictions or contains artificial hormones or genetically engineered products. The goal of food labeling is clarity for the consumer and the use of the non-descriptive descriptor phrases are anything but clear; for the average consumer, they may as well not even be on the packaging. To make labeling more informative, Horvath recommended “FDA-mandated universal allergen warnings and front-of-pack labels to better educate consumers.” Whatever the solution is, it is time to end the use of non-descriptive descriptors.

[1] 21 C.F.R. 182.1–.99

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