Friday, April 24, 2009

"Natural Flavors?"

Have you looked at the ingredients on any of the packaged and processed foods that you’ve eaten lately? Chances are, if you have, you’ve seen “natural flavors” listed, generally towards the bottom of the list. It’s nearly impossible to know what these natural flavors are, or from what they’ve been derived, so if you’ve wondered what that means, you’re not alone. Most of us, though, don’t get much further than simply wondering, and accepting that there are just some things that we may never know, and that what “natural flavors” actually are may just be one of them. In Fast Food Nation, however, Eric Schlosser explains why many of us should be concerned by the term.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA),

The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means 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. (e-CFR)

This seems pretty reasonable until you realize that it could basically account for just about anything; such a regulation has no cultural or religious context, a fact that Eric Schlosser has helped make public knowledge.

After reading Fast Food Nation, Hitesh Shah, a software engineer from Los Angeles, California, contacted McDonald’s concerned by the information suggested by Schlosser in his recent bestseller. The concern was that there was more in McDonald’s French fries than simply potatoes and the 100% vegetable oil that they were purportedly being cooked in. Since any additional ingredients could be reported by the fast food chain as “natural flavors,” this information was not publicly available, so Shah had decided to contact the corporation directly.

He was concerned not for health reasons, or out of curiosity, though, Hitesh Shah is a devout Jain and a vegetarian.
The religion Jainism forbids the consumption and wearing of all animal products, but McDonald’s French fries had appeared to be acceptable after they had switched over to 100% vegetable oil. By doing this, they had opened their doors to new customers who had frequently been estranged by the chain’s menu, which offered few items that weren’t derived in some part from animal products. Unfortunately for Shah and countless other vegetarians and Hindus, though, the “natural flavors” that were also present in McDonald’s French fries included a small level of beef flavoring that the chain had added to compensate for being cooked in vegetable oil as opposed to beef tallow. To maintain the taste, but appear healthier and as a product that more people could feel okay about eating, this “natural flavor” had been developed, but not publicized.

Thanks to Schlosser and the additional investigation of Shah, and later, Viji Sundaram, journalist for India-West and author of the article “Where's the Beef? It's in Your French Fries,” though, the truth behind McDonalds’ “natural flavors” was exposed to the general public. Since the controversy, and a class action lawsuit, the McDonald’s Corporation has released a formal apology to religious and vegetarian communities affected, claiming that they had never meant for any confusion, but had never made any claims that their French fries were a vegetarian option. In Schlosser’s Afterword to Fast Food Nation, he presents evidence to the contrary, but whatever the case, the truth behind the French Fries’ “natural flavors” had been exposed.

But McDonald’s isn’t the only corporation marketing products containing “natural flavors.” So this raises the question, what other food products are being consumed by, or even marketed to, vegetarians and members of religious communities with dietary restrictions contain similarly misleading “natural flavors?” Are there other controversial items, which cause such people to inadvertently go against their beliefs? Like McDonald’s French fries, there is little information available, but we should be questioning what we are eating. Change needs to come to the food labeling standards in the United States, because situations like this should be avoidable. Don’t you want to know what “natural flavors” really means?


Buncombe, Andrew. “There’s beef in your French fries, says McDonald’s.” The Independent: 25 May 2001.

Goodstein, Laurie. “For Hindus and Vegetarians, Surprise in McDonald’s Fries.” The New York Times: 20 May 2001.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. Harper Perennial: 2005.

Sundaram, Viji. “Where’s the Beef? It’s in Your your French Fries.” India-West: 10 September 2002.

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