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Natural Flavours: A common ingredient worth knowing a little bit more about

By Lauren Olson, March 10 2020 —

Eating good foods and becoming healthier is all the rage these days. There are endless trends and diets and lifestyles that all boast different benefits and promise certain types of results ranging from weight loss goals to better overall health. As a result of this “healthy is the new sexy” climate we’re living in, consumers are on the hunt for healthy options at the grocery store. Companies, in turn, are meeting the demands for flavourful and appealing health foods that appear to meet the criteria of health food as well as being convenient and attractively packaged. 

I’ve had a personal crusade against one particular added ingredient that I’m going to highlight in this article — natural flavours. My intention as I sat down to write this was to rip these ingredients into pieces and convince everyone to never eat them again by emphasizing everything that’s wrong with them. But, as I did some research it became clear to me that it’s not my job to tell you what to do or not do. Nor am I going to take down these food companies who add these pesky little ingredients to freaking everything. This is just about awareness and shedding some light on the subject because they really are in most food products. It’s good to have an idea about what we’re putting in our bodies. Especially when you’re genuinely trying to be healthier and marketing agencies are damn good at convincing the average consumer that certain things are either good for you, or at the very least, that they are harmless. I’ll also say that this is an opinion piece and I have done research but the sources are not peer reviewed scientific studies so again, read with your critical thinking glasses on, and don’t take my word as gospel, but hopefully as something to think about. 

So, how did this personal crusade begin you might wonder? It all started when I was listening to a podcast with a woman by the name of Vani Hari who has taken on the big food industry by revealing standards of food quality and shedding light on some of the super shady things that go into our food. I recommend checking out her book Feeding you Lies and her Instagram @thefoodbabe. One thing she mentioned were these natural flavours. My interest was piqued and I started looking for these added flavours on things I had in my own home. 

I was just like everyone, thinking that natural flavours must be just that — all natural.  It turns out that’s not necessarily the case. Natural flavours, as opposed to artificial flavours, are flavours derived from something found in nature, but that is where anything natural ends. It turns out that natural and artificial flavours are very similar, the only difference being natural flavours come from a natural source whereas artificial flavours are created in a lab. Both are manipulated in a lab and injected back into a food product with the purpose of increasing palatability and enhancing food tastes. I was shocked to find this ingredient in almost everything. Even some of my teas had these added flavours and to me, it just seems crazy. Tea, in my mind should just be the herb, because the herbs used for tea have all the flavour nature intended and why mess with that? The reason, my friends, is because when what we eat has extra flavour our brain receptors get super fuckin’ excited and want more. That is why big food companies add extra flavours to things — so we will buy more of it. This creates food addictions and overeating.

To my knowledge, the risks with consuming a lot of these natural flavours comes down to the basic concept that our bodies don’t recognize these ingredients as “real,” so metabolizing them and dealing with them causes some stress and anxiety in the body. Again, the research I am reporting on isn’t peer reviewed, so I ask that you do your own research and don’t just take my word for it. But, common sense tells me that eating real, whole foods that taste the way nature intended just makes the most sense to me from a health perspective. 

So, what is the alternative, if these natural flavours are added to so many things? First of all, don’t fret and don’t go crazy with trying to avoid everything all the time. I do my best to avoid them most of the time and don’t beat myself up when I have that bag of ketchup chips or M&Ms. 

Here are a few of my go-to tips though to go all natural — as much as possible!

Read ingredients 

You have to do this. Read them. When something lists natural flavours, put it back on the shelf and move on. Also, be diligent and read the ingredients on the back of packaging. Some companies have gotten real sneaky and show some ingredients on the front of the packaging making them seem innocent and all natural and then list the complete ingredients on the back with the nutritional information. Rude. 

Get creative 

Don’t be disappointed when your favourite sparkling water has these natural flavours — they all do, by the way. “Natural fruit essence” is a fancy and sneaky way of disguising the same chemical shit-storm. Remember that you made a commitment to treat your body with natural foods, set the bottle down, head over to the produce section, buy some lemons and limes and squeeze the REAL fruit juice into your soda water. Throw some mint or cucumber in there too for good measure! Sure, there is a bit more effort required, but it’s marginal, in my opinion. And every time you don’t buy those fake products you are voting with your dollar against these things. 

Educate yourself and find replacements for those products. Eating a diet of whole foods admittedly takes some planning, prep and diligence. It can be disheartening to find that colour or flavour has been added to something that seems like it shouldn’t be there. I was recently  frustrated to find that balsamic vinegar —one of my faves — often has colour added to it. But, with that said, it’s not as hard as you might think once you get your basics down. Everyone has their go-to meals and favourites so it starts with finding out what you’re currently eating and looking for a cleaner substitute for it. Listen to podcasts or read books about products you’re interested in. Knowledge is power, and it can help to be motivating in times of weakness to have a stash of reminders in your mind about why you’re trying to stay away from certain things.

I just want to reiterate that this isn’t about being perfect or about being afraid of certain ingredients. For me, it’s about being educated so you aren’t fooled by marketing or trends. It’s also about balance and guiltlessly enjoying those insanely, delightfully, over-flavoured, sugar filled treats every now and then. Making small changes to begin, in my experience, grows into a healthier overall lifestyle naturally and without effort. So, be free young grasshoppers — read those labels and begin your journey to more mindful shopping and consuming!

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