As soon as we learned the raspberry tart or vanilla pudding we were eating contained an ingredient innocently known as castoreum, but no real raspberry or vanilla, we should have been more concerned.
While it sounds harmless, castoreum comes from the dried anal glands of beavers, and while it initially begs the question who on earth thought to substitute such a thing for berries or vanilla bean, more troubling is the knowledge that castoreum is considered a natural flavoring, and shows up that way on labels. (Ref. 1)
While beavers are technically natural, there is no one on earth who would relish in the opportunity to consume anal glands...raising A LOT of questions about what natural really means.
According to the U.S Food and Drug Administration guidelines, foods can be labeled natural as long as “the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances,” the agency’s website says.
Well, that opens the door to a whole host of unnerving lab activities.
And while it’s one thing to dye a tiny piece of apple blue and imply that it’s a blueberry on a pack of muffins or bagels, we shouldn’t be surprised that the secrecy goes much deeper, given the knowledge that most synthetic versions of vitamins are derived from coal tar, and have the potential to provide more problems than benefits when we consume them.
Truth be told
Processed food manufacturers are the biggest culprits when it comes to hiding so-called natural substances in their products.
Former food industry insider Bruce Bradley – he was once a marketer for food companies including Nabisco, General Mills and Pillsbury – left the industry in 2008 to raise public awareness about all the things food company giants aren’t telling us about our food.
“Don’t be fooled into thinking a brand or the food company that owns it cares about you or your health,” Bradley said in an interview with Grist.com. (Ref. 2)
Primarily profit-driven, food companies create smoke screens that entice us to buy their foods and line their pockets, said Bradley, who now blogs about the underhanded dealings of the food industry – desperate to get us hooked on sugary, fat-laded foods that also contain so many “delicious” hidden surprises.
When you buy certain candies, they are often covered with something called confectioner’s glaze. It sounds, of course, like something you’d make at home – confectioner’s sugar mixed with a bit of milk or lemon juice and whisked until smooth.
No. Commercial versions of confectioner’s glaze – also called resinous glaze or shellac – are made from the secretions of the female lac bug, who leaves it behind on trees for industrious food industry workers to come by and scrape up. (Ref. 3)
And if beaver bottoms and bug secretions aren’t distasteful enough, consider the red and orange food colorings – called cochineal and carmine - labeled as natural on food labels for things like applesauce, meat, spices and baked goods.
It’s natural all right, and it’s made from the scaly female cochineal beetle.
The best defense
“Whether they’re disguised as natural flavors, enzymes, glazes, or colors, you deserve to know if they’re in your food, right? Unfortunately big food companies disagree,” Bradley said.
So ultimately, what does all this mean? Stay away from processed foods whenever possible. Make your own applesauce from fresh-picked fruit, skip cookies, crackers and commercial bread and invest in a bread machine if you don’t want to spend too much time in the kitchen.
Eat foods as close to their natural state as possible, and if you do grab a processed snack now and then, read the label carefully to make sure “natural flavorings” aren’t one of the ingredients discussed here…because as we’ve learned, it could be just about anything.