The Mystery of Reading Food Labels

The Mystery of Reading Food Labels

So, you may think you can ‘read’ food labels – and that you know what the terms mean?

This Note is not intended to be a definitive discussion – just a warning to help limit the number of wrong assumptions it is all too easy to make when reading food labels. There are many different ways that the manufacturers can ‘dress up’ their products to make them sound better, or ‘more natural’ than they really are. Here are just one or two examples to get you thinking!

Years back, when I was in Australia and advising a biodynamic bakery, I was asked to source some ‘natural vanilla extract’ for them. It turned out to be more difficult than I had expected. When it came time to check final details with each supplier that I located, I found that more often than not, the products were not as “natural” as I had hoped for. Eventually, one company I spoke to assured me that their product was “100% pure vanilla.” Imagine my disappointment when it arrived with the following description on the label, “artificial vanilla flavouring.”  I phoned them to discuss my concern and they insisted that their product was 100% vanilla extract. They went on to explain that they did not add water or dilute their product. I returned the product and advised the bakery to use ‘real natural ingredients.’  They chose to soak vanilla beans in alcohol and add the extract to their biscuit mix.

Unfortunately, things are not much better today.

  • Real vanilla is natural, but natural vanilla is fake. It all depends, it seems, on the sequencing of the words.

What do you expect when you check the ingredients on a recent purchase and read ‘natural vanilla?’ What you can reasonably expect is that vanilla beans have been soaked in alcohol to extract the flavour, and the resultant solution added to the recipe.….not a bit of it.

Vanillin, the chemical responsible for vanilla’s taste and flavour, is a far more complicated beast. Chemically identical to real vanilla, artificial vanilla can be made from clove oil, pine bark, coal tar, bran, even cow dung.

Until fairly recently, the chemical lignin which is derived from wood pulp was the most common way of synthesizing vanillin. Most artificial vanilla is now derived from guaiacol, a chemical derived from creosote or Guaiacum flowers.

Another item frequently on food labels is ‘natural raspberry flavour.’

This artificial ingredient has unfortunately never met a raspberry. It is the exudate of what can loosely be called the anal gland of a North American beaver.  Beavers have a pair of pouch-like sacs, called castor sacs, located on top of the base of the tail. It is above the vent, which is the beaver’s only excretory opening and casually referred to as its anus.

What is natural banana flavouring?

The most popular form of ‘artificial banana flavour’ is a molecule called isoamyl acetate. ‘Natural banana flavour’, on the other hand, is a molecule called — wait for it — isoamyl acetate. Chemically, they’re the exact same thing.

Buyer beware. It only takes a few moments to check up on the various ingredients that are displayed on the label of whatever you have bought.

Post a Comment