Reporter: Samantha Daniels
The list of ingredients on food labels can be a little tricky to decipher. Words like ‘maltodextrin’ and ‘ascorbic acid’ may seem a little difficult to understand but a quick Google search can help to demystify the uncertainty surrounding these ingredients. However, when labels list ‘natural flavours’ as an ingredient, it’s much more difficult to understand exactly what was put into the product.
According to Durham College and UOIT Campus Health Centre nutritionist Sylvia Emmorey, “natural flavours” is an umbrella term for any number of flavourings derived from natural ingredients in a lab.
For example, in the United States, castoreum is a natural flavouring used in foods that is derived from the anal glands of beavers. Typically it is used to add a vanilla, strawberry, or raspberry flavour, to candy, pop, and ice cream.
“So why can it be called natural? Because it comes from a natural source,” said Emmorey. “It comes from an animal.”
While it is approved for human consumption in the United States, nowhere in the Canadian Food and Drug Act and Regulations does it specify if castoreum can be used as a natural flavouring here.
“I couldn’t find anything in the regulations to say it’s permitted in Canada,” said Wendy Smith, Durham College Food and Pharmaceutical Science professor. “But that’s not to say there aren’t other things that people would find gross.”
Whether it’s castoreum or rennet, an enzyme used to produce cheese found in the stomachs of mammals, the food industry uses a plethora of natural substances in foods to enhance the flavour, colour, and texture.
“There are a lot of things that if you take the process apart, you would find it gross or unappetizing, but everything is sterilized and safe for human consumption,” said Smith. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s food labelling and advertising guide, “Substances which impart flavours which have been derived from a plant or animal source may be claimed to be ‘natural’.”
This does not mean the food itself is natural, only the flavourings within the food.
“If we were in the U.S. and I was trying to defend castoreum or the bugs ground up for natural colour, they are a natural source,” said Smith. “You wouldn’t be grossed out if someone used beets to get a purple colour.”
In a 2007 International Journal of Toxicology study, castoreum was found to have no negative health effects.
Whether it’s unappetizing or not, these natural sources of flavouring and colouring are used for a reason. “In the past, there have been some real problems associated with some of the synthetic colours,” said Smith. “We extract colour from many natural sources and it’s always done so that it is sterilized and safe. One thing you can say is Canadian food and drug regulations, I think, are very safe.”
However, Emmorey said the main issue is that consumers don’t know exactly what they’re putting in their mouths. “For some of my clients with food allergies they need to know what is in their foods and what natural flavourings are being used,” she said. “Say they have an issue with yeast, is one of those natural flavourings a derivative of yeast? The package doesn’t tell you.”
Emmorey also brought up a potential issue for vegans. “What if the flavouring comes from seafood or dairy or eggs?”
Under Canadian law, food manufacturers are not required to label any of the specific natural flavourings added to a product. The only way to know for certain what is in the natural flavourings is to call the food manufacturer and ask, but that isn’t a foolproof option.
“You have to find out from the manufacturer what exactly is included in that ‘natural flavouring’,” said Smith. “And it would be their choice to let you know.”
Smith suggests consumers be aware of what is good for them as an individual and to make informed choices. “Food in Canada is quite safe, but we’re human and the system is made up of humans so there will be over-cites at times, unfortunately,” she said. “Look at valuable, validated information from peer-reviewed journals and government, hospital and university websites.”
Emmorey suggests consumers shop the perimeter of the grocery store to minimize the amount of additives being put into their food. “Also, buy organic or locally-grown whenever possible,” she said.