Faking the Flavour-

‘Flavourings’ crop up in much of our food and drink. But, asks Ian Tokelove of The Food Magazine, do we know what they are, what are they made from, and whether they are safe?

There are approximately 2,700 different flavourings currently allowed into our food, but, unlike food additives, few are ever identified other than by the description ‘flavouring(s)’ so it is impossible to know what they are.

What are flavourings?
Flavourings are purely cosmetic food ingredients with no nutritive value of their own. They are used in processed foods to replace flavours lost during processing or to ‘bump up’ the taste. They can also be used to mask unpleasant flavours caused by other ingredients.

Some are artificial and others are derived from natural sources. In their pure, concentrated state they tend to be fairly unpleasant, necessitating the use of protective clothing, goggles and even respirators.

However, once diluted sufficiently, they produce a flavour or aroma that encourages consumption of foods and drinks. Flavourings are used in so many food and drink products that they can be hard to avoid.

Labelling and the Law
Specific legislation (and associated guidelines) regarding the use of flavourings are confusing and hard to access, although their use does have to conform with general food law (ie they should not be harmful to health). Where guidelines exist, they are haphazard and vary from country to country; a flavouring that is approved in one country may be banned in another.

In 1996, the European Parliament ruled that an EU-wide ‘positive list’ of approved flavouring substances should be created over the next five years; it is still ongoing and is unlikely to be completed before 2010. Even when such a list is published there will be no need to identify flavourings on labels on food products as specific, named ingredients.

The ongoing EU evaluation of flavourings is reliant on the industry providing accurate testing and usage data. In a significant number of incidences the industry has been unable to provide sufficient testing data for evaluation, but in such cases the flavourings have remained on the market until further data is forthcoming. The Scientific Committee on Food has reported that intake estimates of flavouring substances are, ‘generally very poor’ because of a lack of data on the concentrations of flavourings in foodstuffs.

Are flavourings safe?
As with all food ingredients, flavourings should be safe for consumption at the quantities in which they are used. But, since flavourings are not identified on food labels, if associated problems arise they are almost impossible to identify.

Flavourings may have a much wider, indirect effect on our health because of the way in which they are used to improve the appeal of low-nutrient or high fat, sugar or salt foods. Because they are cheaper, flavourings often replace genuine, nutritious ingredients (a strawberry flavour instead of a real strawberry).

Repeated exposure to strong flavourings may also negatively affect our reaction to the taste of fresh, unprocessed foods. A sweet, crunchy apple can taste quite bland after a highly flavoured
packet of crisps.

Different types of flavouring

Artificial flavourings
Synthetic flavourings – a cheap alternative to natural flavourings that can be used to provide flavours which are not found naturally. They are simply labelled as ‘flavouring(s)’.

Natural flavourings
A ‘natural’ flavouring should be derived from a ‘natural’ vegetable,
animal or microbiological origin, but the process by which it is manufactured may be fairly unnatural, using acids, microorganisms or enzymes, for example. Natural flavourings can also come from unexpected ‘natural’ sources, such as carcasses, rose wood, oak wood chips or strawberry leaves.

In general, natural flavourings will not be evaluated for safety by the EU, as they are assumed to be safe. It is worth noting that some natural flavourings would have trouble being accepted as new flavourings if they were presented today. For instance, nutmeg is toxic in large doses.

Natural flavourings are the only flavourings allowed into food certified as ‘organic’, as long as none of the ingredients are derived from genetically modified sources.

Named flavourings
If a flavouring is described as ‘apple flavour’ or ‘natural apple flavour’ it should have come wholly or mostly from genuine apples. During the
production process most of the nutritional goodness of the apple will be removed – so we end up with all the taste but none of the goodness. Named flavourings sound ‘healthier’ though, and many manufacturers now use such flavourings.

Nature-identical flavourings
Nature-identical flavourings are substances that are obtained by synthesis or isolated through chemical processes. Although they may be ‘artificial’ in nature, their chemical composition is identical to that of ‘natural’ flavouring substances, and thus they are known as ‘nature-identical’.

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First Published in 2008