Unless eating a strictly whole foods diet, it can be tough to tell what exactly is in your food, even when reading the labels. The ever elusive ‘natural flavors’ on packaged foods can conceal ingredients, making it particularly tricky for veg eaters to know whether or not a food contains animal products. Even more a mystery, ‘artificial flavors’ can be made up of natural or synthetic chemicals, sometimes including those banned in other countries. News to me was that these two terms can also conceal ingredients of an entirely separate class — those that come via the biotech industry.
Companies such as Senomyx and Linguagen have been working for years on tricking the taste buds. By activating or blocking receptors in the mouth that are responsible for taste, they are able to help companies decrease the salt, sugar and other ingredients in their products, including somewhat more controversial ingredients like MSG. “We’re helping companies clean up their labels,” said Senomyx’s chief executive, Kent Snyder.
These chemicals are formulated using the same process employed for developing new drugs. Often, because they are utilized in only small amounts, they are not required to go through stringent FDA approval process for food additives. Instead of being listed separately, like artificial sweetener Splenda, they are lumped in with the other artificial flavors. However, where it took Splenda 11 years to get approval, it took less than 18 months and one 3-month animal study for Senomyx to get approval for one of their first products.
Another example, a company called Intralytix has created bacteria-killing viruses that are meant for treating the food supply. In 2002, they petitioned the FDA to allow the use of these bateriophages (a.k.a. phages) as food additives and were subsequently the first company to get approval. Their first product to hit the market is sprayed on ready to eat meats and used to kill Listeria. They are also seeking approval for a phage that can be sprayed on beef before grinding to kill E. coli. The FDA doesn’t know if these phages are safe to consume on a regular basis or what the consequences might be of consuming them over a lifetime. However, they do not require even so much as a note on the label to let people know the meat has been treated with the virus.
In these and other cases, I think what most upsets me is that consumers have no way to know that these ingredients are in their foods. How can we make safe choices if we’re not fully informed? We’re dependent on the government to police the industry and frankly I don’t trust them to do a thorough job. The FDA has failed to keep our products safe time and time again.
Do you feel safe feeding your children live viruses or supressing their newly developing taste buds? I know I don’t! The best we can do seems to be to purchase products in as natural a state as possible and from local or well-known sources.
Some additional articles and sites talking about the secretive world of food additives and flavorings:
Why McDonald’s Fries Taste So Good
“Complex flavors are being made using enzyme reactions, fermentation, and fungal and tissue cultures. All the flavors created by these methods — including the ones being synthesized by fungi — are considered natural flavors by the FDA.”
What Everybody Ought to Know about Food Additives
“Nobody knows the effects of the many different additives used in the thousands of different combinations. To make matters worse, because of political pressure, the FDA allows manufacturers to add small amounts of cancer-causing substances to our food. So, not only are many of our foods not healthy, they’re unsafe.”
The Food Commission Guide to Food Additives [PDF]
From the UK. “540 food additives and over 4,500 un-named flavouring agents are permitted in the foods we eat. On average we each eat about 14 pounds (6.5kg) of food additives every year. “