Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Artificial Flavor: What is That Stuff, Anyway?!

With Easter just around the corner, my mind once again circles back to a question I have asked (silently) for years, but never took the time to look for an answer.  Artificial flavor is an ingredient listed on countless products in regular grocery stores.  Seems innocent enough...this or that product contains natural and artificial flavor.  But what does that really mean?  

The first thing I found out about artificial flavoring is that is has a lot to do with the sense of smell.  While food can only taste sweet, sour, salty, bitter, or savory the number of ways a particular food may smell is countless.  Therefore, by altering the smell (chemically), you essentially alter how the food tastes.  So, according to various scientific references on Wikipedia, the term flavoring actually denotes the combined chemical sensations of taste and smell.  Great, I thought my mouth was just in danger...but come to find out the chemical masterminds are after my nose too.  

But what are the actual chemicals?  How dangerous are they?  Here is the kicker: the FDA does not require that flavor companies (what on earth is a flavor company?) disclose ingredients as long as all of the ingredients are "generally regarded as safe".  Therefore, these companies can protect their secret toxic potions and $1.5 billion annual profit while quite possibly harming all of us and our environment.  

I do about 90% of our grocery shopping at Whole Foods.  While my mother-in-law jokingly calls it  "whole paycheck" I shop there for a reason.  All of their ingredients are natural, many are organic, and you will never find questionable additives or preservatives in their stores.  The average Joe and Jane can read AND understand the ingredients listed on the labels.  In addition, they are committed to sustainable food sources, protecting the environment, and supporting local farming operations.  I once had our local store manager explain to me the difference between a modified starch (safe) and a genetically modified food (questionable).  Furthermore, I find that my grocery bills are about the same regardless of where I shop.  By sticking to the basics (or shopping the perimeter of the grocery store), eating healthy does not need to break the bank.  

Like all parents, I want my children to grow up strong and healthy and I really do not believe that larger food chains have our best interest at stake.  In the year 1980, the world's population was approximately 4.5 Billion.  Today, it is approximately 7 Billion.   What do you think the big players in the food industry have done to keep up with the demand for food while not cutting into their profits?  That's right: chemically altered and artificially flavored food-like substances.  After all, the natural flavoring is just too expensive and hard to find according to the 'flavorists' know, those guys and gals who make a living from producing chemically-altered flavors at the flavor company.    

So, just when you thought reading food labels could not get any more difficult, think again.  The simple ingredient, artificial flavor, may not be so simple after all.  Crude oil and coal tar could very well be lumped with your (and my) morning coffee creamer and cute little chocolate-flavored Easter bunnies.  

My mom always used to say, "You ate such and such when you were a kid and you turned out just fine." (No comments, please.)  My response would always be that chicken used to be chicken and sugar used to be sugar.  Now, nearly everything is modified or altered.  While it is becoming harder to decipher what is good vs what is bad, it is not impossible.

When you are out shopping for your Easter treats, go ahead, flip the label over and take notice to just how many ingredients you are familiar with.  The basic ingredients in chocolate are: cocoa beans, sugar, milk, cocoa butter, lecithin, and vanilla.  I have a hunch you will be pressed to find any of those listed in the mass produced goodies.  

Now, on to my next pressing question.  An Easter bunny?  How to explain this one to our Ethiopian-American son?!?!  

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