Finished products would not be salable without flavorings. Because packet soups, preserves or yoghurts would taste little without them. Because consumers reject artificial flavors, natural flavorings are used. But that’s not pure nature – we’ll tell you how to recognize aromas and simply avoid them.
24 delicious blueberries can be seen on the packaging of the “Fritt fruit bar”, the chewy candy with vitamin C. But there is not a speck of fruit in it. According to the list of ingredients on the packaging, the “aroma” brings the blueberry taste. On the packaging of the “Thai Chef Soup”, flavored chicken, eight finely sliced chicken pieces tempt you. This includes: zero percent meat, but the flavor enhancers E 621 and E 635 and again: aroma. “Actimel Vanilla” bottles and packaging show 20 vanilla blossoms. There is no trace of vanilla in the small bottles. The vanilla flavor comes from aroma.
Flavorings are found in many products
With these and 27 other products from an ordinary discounter, the Hamburg consumer advice center documents what TEST has been criticizing for a long time: Flavorings are used to simulate a quality in food that does not exist in this form. Whether light products or milk drinks, sausages for children or soft drinks, TEST repeatedly criticizes the massive use of flavorings that are added to the products.
The German Association of the Flavor Industry (DVAI) calculated that everyone eats 137 kilograms of flavored food every year. The bottom line is a consumption of 137 grams of pure aroma per capita and year. Around 70 percent are “natural” flavors, 28 percent are “nature-identical” and only two percent are “artificial” flavors.
Soft drinks account for the largest proportion of aroma consumption, followed by dairy products and sausages. Ready meals, on the other hand, which are probably most closely associated with flavorings, account for only a small proportion of the daily intake of flavored foods. Flavors can also be found in foods where you wouldn’t necessarily expect them: simple nut mixes to nibble on in front of the television or simple juice spritzers.
Flavorings are chemical substances with flavoring properties that are used to produce flavors. Industry adds flavorings to food for a variety of reasons: Where the flavorings are neglected during production, storage, processing and storage, flavorings compensate for these deficits. Like a spice, they also serve to round off and refine the taste.
Furthermore, the addition of aromas could be used to create flavor variations that make food unmistakable. This is an important aspect of branded products. Flavoring can also be used to process relatively tasteless and odorless raw materials into attractive foods. So if the tomatoes from the greenhouse taste like water, the soy paste is largely neutral and the pork from factory farming is simply nothing, ready-made products with these ingredients are simply helped with a little aroma.
Only one gram of aroma is needed to add flavor to a kilo of food. However, what is ultimately in the canned soup, ready-made pizza or bread mix remains a company secret. The packaging only states whether the aroma is “natural”, “nature-identical” or simply “aroma”.
Flavoring is a tradition
Flavoring food is not a modern invention. The oldest methods of making food more aromatic and at the same time longer lasting include smoking fish and meat and fermenting cabbage to make sauerkraut, which makes the cabbage durable and gives it a slightly sour note. Essential oils and plant extracts have also been used since the 19th century to make food tastier.
Such real fruit or spice extracts still play a role today, especially with beverage and natural food manufacturers. For example for fruit yoghurts: Instead of pseudo-natural fruit flavors, which are produced from wood by enzymes in the laboratory, they use real fruits or natural extracts and create particularly “tasty” combinations of, for example, orange-sea buckthorn, mango-vanilla or raspberry-elderberry.
Because by no means every natural product has a lot of taste. Flavorings make up a tiny 0.005 to 0.01 percent of the total weight of a fruit. Also, there are not always enough natural flavor suppliers. If, for example, one wanted to cover the demand for vanilla exclusively from the pulp of the vanilla pod, world production would just be sufficient for consumption in Germany, explains the DVAI. This is not only unrealistic, but also more expensive than the taste from the laboratory. 25 grams of artificial vanillin for a price of around 35 cents are just as aromatic as a kilo of real vanilla for around 75 euros.
Cheating with vanilla flavor
However, anyone who has ever tasted real vanilla and vanillin will know that the taste experience is not the same. The aroma of natural vanilla goes deeper and is fuller than that of vanillin. That’s why some suppliers of dairy products have gone back to refining yoghurt with the taste of real vanilla beans, even if this is a few cents more expensive.
Because the synthetically obtained vanilla aroma doesn’t come close to the real thing and the note “vanillin” on the label doesn’t look so good, cheating is sometimes done. The Oldenburg Food Institute of the Lower Saxony State Office for Consumer Protection and Food found this out some time ago. It first examined 20 vanilla-flavored ice cream samples from ice cream parlors. The sobering result: only one sample contained real vanilla.
Subsequently, vanilla premixes for the production of ice cream and vanilla sugar for bakeries were more closely targeted. The food inspectors found that 16 out of 18 mixtures did not contain real vanilla, although this was expressly declared, but vanillin. In 14 bags there were even the typical black vanilla granules, which in themselves are considered external proof that real vanilla is contained. After all, when the vanilla sugar for bakeries was examined, only two out of seven sacks contained synthetically produced vanillin. The Celle Higher Regional Court ruled in a statement that the situation is legally clear. “Anything that says ‘vanilla’ on it has to contain real vanilla, that’s what the consumer expects.”
Legal regulations and positive list for flavors
For a long time, it was not clear in the EU which flavors were allowed to be used at all – and whether they were beneficial to health. Flavorings have long been under scrutiny in Europe. As early as 1988, the health guards of the then European community decided to introduce a flavor regulation. A positive list should be created and all flavorings should be recorded and health-related evaluated. Mind you: These were substances that had already been in use for years.
But it was not until 2009, more than 20 years after the decision, that the new EU Flavors Regulation came into force. The aim is to harmonize the use of aromas and food ingredients with aroma properties in and on food. Among other things, the new regulation regulates the labeling on the packaging and describes maximum quantities for natural, undesirable substances in aromas, such as coumarin. The changes came into effect on January 21, 2011. The European Commission drew up the positive list in October 2012, in which all permitted substances are listed.
Flavorings: Consumption amounts distorted
In one method, the quantities of a substance produced according to the manufacturer are taken as a basis and divided by the number of consumers. However, this gives a very inaccurate result. After all, it is not said that everything that comes onto the market, into the shopping trolley or onto the plate is eaten. Different amounts consumed by children, adolescents and adults are also not taken into account. The other method calculates how many flavors are in the various foods and how many grams a consumer eats and drinks each day. The result that one comes to here usually overestimates the recording. The values are sometimes 105 times higher than with the other method.
It is true that the quantities of flavoring substances that are actually consumed remain largely in the dark. And the tests showed that the majority of industrially produced aromas probably do not pose a health risk. However, the examination of the substances also showed that there are toxic or undesirable flavor components. These include the coumarin contained in cinnamon, which can cause liver and kidney damage, quinine, which is known from bitter drinks, and the toxic hydrocyanic acid from bitter almonds, which are used in baking.
There are legal quantity restrictions for all of these substances. Some substances were even completely banned in the course of the review. These include methyleugenol and estragol, which in isolated form can cause cancer. The two substances also occur as natural flavorings in numerous spices and herbs, such as basil, aniseed, fennel seeds and tarragon. There is no danger here.
There is also a health risk for allergy sufferers. It is usually not the ten to 20 percent of an aroma that causes problems, but the remaining 80 to 90 percent of the aroma components. These include solvents, dyes, antioxidants and preservatives. Above all, however, carriers and accompanying substances in industrially produced protein-based flavors can lead to severe allergic reactions. Soy, milk and chicken proteins can cause problems. However, they must be identified in the list of ingredients on the packaging.
Flavor preferences are trained early on
It is also undisputed that flavorings irritate children’s sense of taste. The earlier this embossing begins, the more lasting it is. “What is stored in terms of taste in childhood is later dominant,” says Professor Hanns Hatt from the Department of Cell Biology at the University of Bochum. Studies by the Technologie Transfer Zentrum Bremerhaven (TTZ) show that children who eat foods with artificial flavors from an early age prefer them later. Tests showed that those used to artificial banana flavor, vanillin or synthetic strawberry flavoring preferred flavored foods and disliked natural yoghurt laced with real strawberries, for example. However, flavored foods in particular often contain too much fat and sugar, which in turn can have a negative effect on body weight.
What tastes so intense also tempts you to eat larger portions – which is also not good for your figure. “Test subjects who ate flavored and spiced food consumed larger amounts than study participants who ate the same unseasoned food,” says a specialist information from the evaluation and information service for nutrition, agriculture and forestry. Kirsten Buchecker from the TTZ in Bremerhaven, who researches children’s taste preferences, knows that intensely tasting products are also popular with the youngest: “Results from our laboratory show that children are generally very fond of flavored foods.” She has observed that people drink more flavored juices than neutral-tasting ones. However, this also increases the calorie intake.
The German Aroma Association does not want the aromas to be given the buck. “It is part of a cultivated eating culture that one stops eating when it tastes best,” he writes. If you constantly eat more than is good for you, this inevitably leads to weight gain and ultimately to obesity. However, the aromas are not to blame for this, but rather the unbridled eating habits. The only question is whether it can be passed on to children.
Flavor Latin: The ABC of Flavorings
Natural flavorings can come from plant extracts or distillates of plant or animal substances. The taste does not have to have been obtained from the substance mentioned, i.e. strawberry flavor not from strawberries, but only from any naturally occurring substance, for example from the wood substance lignin. Most natural flavorings are now obtained using enzymatic or microbiological processes. This is cheaper than extracting it from fruits or other natural foods. The microorganisms used often come from genetic engineering production.
Nature-identical flavorings are increasingly being replaced by natural flavorings because their production is inexpensive thanks to microbiological processes and the statement “natural” is also more popular with consumers. Nature-identical substances have very little to do with nature. These are chemical compounds that are identical to a substance that occurs in nature. Natural and nature-identical flavors do not require approval in Germany. They are considered food.
By definition, aroma extracts are not aromas, but real fruit, herb or spice extracts and mixtures thereof. They are labeled analogously, for example as “vanilla extract”.
Artificial flavors, on the other hand, must be permitted. They are obtained by chemical synthesis, but have no natural counterpart. In Germany, 18 artificial flavors are allowed, but they are used less and less. If the EU regulations take effect, the terms “nature-identical” and “artificial” aroma will disappear completely. In addition to the natural aromas, there is only the term “aroma”, behind which an artificial or nature-identical aroma or mixtures can hide.
Smoke aroma or the term “smoke” is often found in sausage products and cheese. These are not freshly smoked foods, but products that have received an addition of liquid smoke. This is obtained by passing smoke into a solvent. Two layers are formed: First, a tarry phase, which mainly contains the harmful components of the smoke, and second, an aqueous phase with the flavors. Liquid smoke is therefore toxicologically safer than freshly generated smoke. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently evaluated how safe the individual smoke flavors are and reported “safety concerns” for several substances. These concerns should be resolved for the creation of a final community list. With the validity of the EU Flavors Ordinance from January 2011, smoke flavors must be expressly declared as “smoke flavors”. Until then, they can hide under the collective term “aroma”.
The truth behind the aroma
The indication “aroma” is often found on the packaging of confectionery, dried soups or yoghurt. Behind this is often a nature-identical aroma or a mixture with artificial aromas.
Not a trace of nature: According to the list of ingredients, sweets and red fruit jelly from the bag often contain raspberry or strawberry flavor. The consumer then expects aroma from real fruits. But there is no trace of it, mostly nature-identical aromas.
The designation “natural raspberry aroma” means, however, that 95 percent of the aroma must come from the named fruit, and the remaining five percent may come from synthetic aroma.
“Only natural flavors”: This label on food sounds good, but the quality behind it is not necessarily so. The product may contain natural laboratory flavors created by microorganisms.
Some suppliers of frozen food and ready meals completely do without flavorings and additives and also declare this on the packaging. But beware: The note “Without flavor-enhancing additives” does not mean that there are no such substances in it. The manufacturers then usually use yeast extract, which also contains a lot of glutamate, albeit natural.
Everything organic? Natural flavorings are allowed
Natural flavorings and flavoring extracts are permitted for products that are produced in accordance with the EU Organic Regulation. However, natural flavorings produced by microorganisms in the laboratory may also be used.
Tips to avoid flavorings
Whenever you have the time and desire, you can prepare your own meals using fresh ingredients. This is especially important when children are eating, so that they don’t get used to the over-flavoured, taste-standardized products. But fresh food simply tastes better.
If you also prefer old and regionally known types of fruit and vegetables, they increase the variety of tastes. You can buy them mainly at markets and directly from the producer. You can also easily have them sent to your home by an organic delivery service.
Buy well-ripened fruits and vegetables and prepare them soon. Peel and chop just before cooking, and cook vegetables with very little liquid for just a few minutes. That protects the taste.
When shopping, choose unprocessed foods as often as possible. Only processed foods can be flavored. Fresh products such as fruit and vegetables do not contain any (artificial) flavorings.