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By "Today" Food Editor
updated 4/7/2004 9:07:39 AM ET 2004-04-07T13:07:39

Q: Could you tell me the latest about "natural flavor," which now seems to be not just in savories, such as soups and salad dressings, but in everything from unsalted butter to organic yogurt? My understanding is that it is a sludge of beef byproduct, high in free glutamic acid, a cousin to MSG, and that it adds flavor — and perhaps a bit of a mad cow — to everything we eat.  I avoid it like the plague, but it's getting harder and harder.  Is it legal in organic products? Many thanks.
— Mary R
Burlington, NC

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A: We’ve all heard of products being labeled “artificially flavored” or “naturally flavored,” but I’m glad you are  curious as to what exactly “natural flavor” means, because even with all the regulations and new organic certifications it’s a confusing and misleading mess!

The definition of natural flavor under the Code of Federal Regulations 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” (21CFR101.22).

Certainly a mouthful!

In other words, it could include beef by-products, but not necessarily.

Any other added flavor therefore is artificial. (For the record, any monosodium glutamate, or MSG, used to flavor food must be declared on the label as such). Both artificial and natural flavors are made by “flavorists” in a laboratory by blending either “natural” chemicals or “synthetic” chemicals to create flavorings.

Gary Reineccius, a professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota, says that  the distinction between natural and artificial flavorings is based on the source of these often identical chemicals. In fact, he says, “artificial flavorings are simpler in composition and potentially safer because only safety-tested components are utilized.

“Another difference,” says Reineccius, “is cost. The search for natural sources of chemicals often requires that a manufacturer go to great lengths to obtain a given chemical…. This natural chemical is identical to the version made in an organic chemist’s laboratory, yet it is much more expensive than the synthetic alternative.”

End result: We shoppers wind up paying the price for natural flavorings, and according to Reineccius, these are in fact no better in quality, nor are they safer, than their cost-effective artificial counterparts.

So what about the flavorings used in organic foods? Foods certified by the National Organic Program (NOP) must be grown and processed using organic farming methods without synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes, petroleum-based fertilizers and sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Organic livestock cannot be fed antibiotics or growth hormones. The term "organic" is not synonymous with "natural." The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) defines “natural” as “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural.” Most foods labeled natural, including its flavorings, are not subject to government controls beyond the regulations and heath codes.

The NOP food labeling standards (effective October of 2002) include a National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Substances. This list has a section on allowed non-synthetic substances, some with restrictions (205.605(a)) for products labeled “organic” or “made with organic ingredients.” Four categories of organic labels were approved by the USDA, based on the percentage of organic content: 100% Organic, Organic, Made with Organic Ingredients, and Less than 70% Organic. Natural flavors, then, can be considered NOP compliant as “organic” when used under the 95% rule (flavorings constitute 5% or less of total ingredients and meet that meet the appropriate requirements) if their organic counterparts are not available. “Made with organic ingredients” can be used on any product with at least 70% organically produced ingredients.”

According to the National List, under section 7CFR205.605(a)(9), non-agricultural, non-organic substances are allowed as ingredients that can be labeled as “organic” or “made with organic,” including “flavors, non-synthetic sources only, and must not be produced using synthetic solvents and carrier systems or any artificial preservative.” Other non-synthetic ingredients allowed in this section include: acids such as microbiologically-produced citric acid, dairy cultures, certain enzymes and non-synthetic yeast that is not grown on petrochemical substrates and sulfite waste liquor.

So, the bottom line is that you have to read those labels carefully. “Natural” might not be so natural, and that even some organic foods might contain some of these “natural flavors.” There are still many grey areas for consumers and producers alike.

Research is being done and attempts are being made to produce more organic flavorings, but the process is slow. We as consumers need to be more aware of what ingredients go into our foods and also demand that the government sticks to its responsibility to regulate these ingredients and make sure that the information is discloses on EVERY label.

Phil Lempert is Food Editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to Phil.Lempert@nbc.com. If he uses your question in one of his columns, it may be edited for length and clarity. (Your full name and e-mail address will not be used.) You can also visit his website at www.supermarketguru.com.

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