Saturday, December 20, 2008

"Natural Flavor" for your holiday meal?

Have you ever wondered what "Natural Flavor" means when you see it on packaged meats from reputable firms at your favorite grocery store? Brands like Safeway, Foster Farms, Krogers... I kept looking at them and wondered why they have to add any flavoring to meat! The 29 years I lived in Denmark I got spoiled with meat, since my first husband's family were mostly farmers. We had meat right from the farm usually. In the last 10 years I lived there, we could also get organically grown, free range poultry, pork and beef.

Twice when a supermarket staff member was near, I asked what those words "Natural Flavor" meant. They hadn't a clue. One thought it might be salt.

That means I have mostly been buying meat at a local store called Wolfe's in Claremont, although it is too far away to walk, so I only get meat there if I'm there for some other purpose as well. That means a lot of meat-less meals when it's my turn to cook!

So finally I decided it was time to investigate the situation. I found what looked like a very helpful flyer called Natural Flavorings on Meat and Poultry Labels from the United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Food Safety Information. Here I could read this interesting information:

What substances or ingredients can be listed as “natural flavor,” “flavor,” or “flavorings” rather than by a specific common or usual name?

Ingredients such as ginger, black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, celery powder, and garlic oil may be listed as one of the three categories mentioned above. They may be designated as “natural flavors” because they are substances used chiefly for flavor. They do not make a nutritional contribution, are not derived from an animal species, and there are no health concerns linked to them.

Note that bit in red, and read on!

The next thing I found was an article from the Michigan Daily, Mystery meat: Preparation processes upset those wanting meat-free meals dated September 29th, 2003. It starts out:

Last spring, University alum Supriya Kelkar noticed something peculiar about her vegetarian Lipton pasta sauce. It tasted distinctly "meaty," she said. She examined the back of her label and none of the ingredients contained meat, but the words "natural flavors" gave her pause.

Concerned, Kelkar, a vegetarian, got in contact with various manufacturers including Campbell's soup division and Unilever Best Food Services, Lipton's parent company. In a series of e-mails, both Lipton and Campbell's acknowledged that some products, even those believed to be vegetarian, could contain dairy, egg or meat products.

Then I discovered a very interesting blog called A Lucid Spoonful, Thoughts on the culture, history and policy that informs how we eat, where the blogger had finally decided to investigate the situation.

Natural flavoring, under the Federal Code of Regulation is: “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”

Sure these are all natural items to begin with, but then why is the flavor industrial complex (which also includes makers of HFCS [High Fructose Corn Syrup]) shrouded in secrecy? Often it is in the mix, which can contain chemical solvents which "disappear" after being used, or rotting fruits or vegetables, boiled down and distilled for the last bits of flavor they have left.

International Flavors & Fragrances, Givaudan, Haarmann & Reimer, and Takasago are four of the world's top flavor companies, all located conveniently in New Jersey. They keep their boiling witch's brew a 'trade' secret, and don't want the public to know exactly who their clients are so that we only associate the taste of what we eat with the product. They make artificial flavoring too, with which we could be getting any chemical combination under the sun, tricking us into thinking grape Kool-aid is actually made from grapes. Or what makes a Jelly Belly pop with flavor all from a little bean.

That explains what Supriya Kelkar had discovered, that those "natural flavoring" can legally contain even extracts from "edible" meat, despite the assurances against this in the Department of Agriculture flyer!

It presents a new term here: The Proprietary Mix Committee (PMC)Letter, which the above-mentioned flavor companies get to keep their concoctions a secret.

QUESTION: If the processor has a PMC letter, must specific flavor ingredients be identified on the label submittal form?

ANSWER: No, the processor need only identify the ingredients of the flavor mix as specified by the PMC letter. The label approval can be handled more efficiently if a copy of the PMC letter is enclosed with the label application, but this is not required.

A friend just gave me another related government link, the regulations for the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) food category. (She told me she heard about it from Michael_F._Jacobson, a fascinating guy, who coined the terms "junk food" and "empty calories." He is a vegetarian and sits on the national board of the "Great American Meatout." After doing this bit of research, I understand why.)

What are the criteria for GRAS status?
Under sections 201(s) and 409 of the Act, and FDA's implementing regulations in 21 CFR 170.3 and 21 CFR 170.30, the use of a food substance may be GRAS either through scientific procedures or, for a substance used in food before 1958, through experience based on common use in food.

  • Under 21 CFR 170.30(b), general recognition of safety through scientific procedures requires the same quantity and quality of scientific evidence as is required to obtain approval of the substance as a food additive and ordinarily is based upon published studies, which may be corroborated by unpublished studies and other data and information.
  • Under 21 CFR 170.30(c) and 170.3(f), general recognition of safety through experience based on common use in foods requires a substantial history of consumption for food use by a significant number of consumers.

When you think that Rachel Carlson published Silent Spring in 1962 and that all the pesticides and fertilizers came into use during the 50's, I'm not sure that 1958 is a good cut-off year. Some time before WWI might be more appropriate! (Mustard gas was first used in WWI, the beginning of chemical warfare, and the rise of the chemical industry.) Or how about margarine, which goes even further back?

I went by Wolfe's today to order a locally grown roasting chicken for Christmas, but they weren't sure the farm would deliver. (Guess it's not a factory farm, then, thank goodness.) And then he suggested a Foster Farm chicken, which they also carry. But I told him about the "Natural Flavors" in them, which really surprised him. I promised to bring him some of the information I included here next time I come.

When even the butchers in the little local shop you trust don't know, and when the Department of Agriculture deliberately lies in its flyer on the subject, it looks like it's every wo/man for her/himself. Check those labels and be sure to inform your butcher about what those "Natural Flavors" are. Maybe some day we'll be able to get pure unadulterated organic, grass-fed, locally grown meats whenever we want them. If course there are good environmental reasons to avoid meats entirely, but I haven't gotten there yet.

I hope that you can find a nice locally grown turkey right off the farm for your holidays! And if you are a vegetarian, you might be getting meat in your tofu-turkey, so you'd better "check [the label] twice to see if it's naughty or nice!"


Anonymous said...

This article explains a lot about the inner workings of the flavor industry:

Why McDonald's Fries
Taste So Good

bonbayel said...

After reading the comment, I looked for Eric Schlosser's Fast
Food Nation in Amazon, since I haven't read that yet (my to-read shelf is overflowing!) I discovered another book there called Flavor Creation by John Wright, which was recommended by a person who wrote: "Flavor Creation continues to assist me in my development as a flavorist on a regular basis. It is a handy resource that I keep nearby at all times. --Brian Merritt, Junior Flavorist, International Flavors and Fragrances." Now there's a career I never even realized existed!