All posts by Tenaya Craig


Sour And Tangy Flavor Trend

Sour flavors have piqued our collective interest, on par with the spice craze.  This consumer trend toward tangy flavors seems to have less to do with competitive one-upsmanship (as with spicy foods) and more to do with a movement toward wellness, artisanal foods, and ethnic cuisines.

More and more people are reaching for greek yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and other fermented foods due to their probiotic content and known health benefits.  As of 2013, Greek yogurt had expanded its market share from a mere one percent in 2007, to more than one third of the entire yogurt market.  Research has shown that fermented foods provide important nutrients, support beneficial bacteria for your gut flora and can help optimize your immune system.

Others have been introduced to sour tastes through Asian cuisine and ethnic dishes like kimchee.  Alongside the wellness fermentation trend, chefs are experimenting with pickling and other techniques to create sour flavors from cultures around the world.  In fact, Katherine Alford, a vice president at the Food Network says [quote]Sour flavors are having a national moment.[/quote]

This trend has invaded commercial industries as well.  There has been a large buzz surrounding sour beers with large distributers like New Belgium creating a new series of sour beers in light of their growing popularity in the United States.  Craft brewers all over are also trying to perfect the style, which involves intentionally spoiling the beer with good bacteria, the same microbes that make yogurt and miso.

Sadly, not all sour foods are healthy choices.  Wrigley, a subsidiary of Mars, Inc., saw a ten-fold increase in sales for sour gum in 2014 and has thus pronounced 2016 “the year of the sours” with plans to unveil several new sour candies and gums.  Pringles currently touts a tube of XTRA Screamin’ Dill Pickle chips with a dare: “Brave one bite and you’ll be hooked on the aggressive taste that won’t quit.”

Citric Acid

Unfortunately, this type of forceful advertising and manipulative use of sour flavoring highlight some concerns.  Citric acid – sometimes referred to as sodium citrate – is commonly the additive used to enhance flavor and provide the tangy, pucker-inducing taste that has become so popular.  This innocuous sounding additive is not commercially sourced from citrus fruits as you might think.  Instead, black mold is used to cheaply convert sugars into citric acid.  The sugars used in this process are often derived from cornstarch and the corn is highly likely to be genetically modified.

As a result, mass-produced citric acid is a hidden GMO ingredient that reportedly sets off allergenic responses in some sensitive consumers.  It is also known as an accomplice to the creation of benzene – a known human carcinogen.  It is often used like MSG, added widely to enhance and intensify flavors, while also functioning as a preservative.

Citric Acid is Commonly Added To
Symptoms of Citric Acid Sensitivity
  • Ice cream and sorbets
  • Caramel and other processed sweets
  • Sodas, cider, beer and wine
  • Many canned and jarred foods (preserves, canned fruits/vegetables, sauces, and even baby food)
  • Baked goods and cake mixes
  • Mouth ulcers or rashes
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as abdominal pain, bloating, or diarrhea
  • Swelling of the mouth or throat
  • Headaches
  • Acid reflux in infants
  • Other symptoms of food allergy

How to Avoid Citric Acid

The FDA and international food regulating agencies consider citric acid to be a harmless additive despite public concern regarding these apparent sensitivities.  As always, read labels to avoid citric acid and other harmful additives.  Enjoy sour flavors healthfully and naturally with homemade kombucha, fermented foods and organic yogurt.

Some Like It Hot

Spicy heat is an interesting flavor to consider since it is not typically included among the five generally-recognized tastes – sweet, salt, bitter, sour, and umami.  These five sensations are experienced when receptors on the surface of the tongue become activated by food, triggering nerve fibers that run to the brain to signal a specific taste.  Spicy heat is not perceived in the same way.

Spice Perception

Your trigeminal system controls spice perception and the ensuing heat sensation. The system detects pain and irritation through nerve endings that are sensitive to touch, temperature, and pain. Capsaicin, the molecule that gives hot peppers their “kick,” for example, binds to a receptor on nerve cells that detect temperature and those that send messages of pain. Piperine, a compound found in black pepper, and allyl isothiocynanate, the burning compound in mustard and radishes, function similarly.

“Send messages of pain” might resonate with those of us who cannot handle spice. The reason we might feel a painfully “hot” sensation when we eat jalapeños, for example, is because the receptors that jalapeños trigger are usually turned on at temperatures higher than 107 degrees – this hurts! There’s no obvious biological reason why we should tolerate this chili sensation, and yet many actively seek it out and enjoy it.

These spice lovers likely curated their tolerance by eating an abundance of spicy foods and peppers. Through repeated exposure, the taste receptors eventually stop responding so strongly to the compounds found in peppers – known as capsaicin desensitization – which may explain why some are able to tolerate more spice than others. Cultural norms can also contribute to a higher tolerance for spicy food. In places like India and South America, hot peppers and spices are a part of the daily cuisine. However, even with this proclivity toward spice, these cultures don’t seem to participate in the competitive, insane heat-seeking activities that Americans pursue.

Hot and Spicy Trends

Despite the fact that nature seems to have created capsaicin and its heat sensation to repel us, food manufacturers are now using it to draw us in. Spicy foods appear to be trendy, particularly spice added to processed foods. Nearly every major commercial snack brand has some form of hot sauce flavored potato chip or cheesy puff product from Sriracha to Tapatio and Trader Joe’s currently boasts a bag of extremely spicy Ghost Pepper potato chips.

Many processed foods are now promoted for their extremely spicy and “fiery” flavors as we can see in this slideshow.

Cognitive scientists have studied how relief and pleasure sensations are intertwined in the brain, suggesting that this may explain what motivates someone to eat the world’s hottest chili pepper, the Carolina Reaper, and post it on YouTube.  What we might view as pure torture and physical agony, appears to produce satisfaction from the relief felt after the painful chili flavor subsides.  Psychologist Paul Rozin argues that activities such as this allow us to believe we’re doing something dangerous without any real repercussions and he coined the term “benign masochism.”

A senior manager of consumer insights for General Mills explains, “You get endorphins when you eat something really spicy,” which can feel intensely exciting to flavor-seeking eaters and can “create a lot of loyalty.”

General Mills and other food manufacturers have found a way to capitalize on this trend and continue to increase the heat of foods in pursuit of this “loyalty.”  Fast food chains boast fiery fries and chicken wings, while commercial items are branded as hot habanero, ghost pepper and “wicked wasabi,” complete with goading marketing to entice the heat-addicted among us to purchase and consume them.

Perhaps spicy heat is not among the five biological taste sensations we normally experience for a reason. Pain is not typically something most of us intentionally seek out. However, if you enjoy a modicum heat and don’t experience gastrointestinal distress or other concerning side effects – more power to you.

How to Enjoy Spice Healthfully

Ideally, we can get our spice fix by consuming natural foods without ingredients such as added sugar or xanthan gum, which is often added to hot sauces to make them thicker.  Instead, we can add heat through fresh ginger, wasabi, curry or chili powders, crushed red pepper, and jalapeño or chipotle peppers while staying far away from fast food’s gimmicky “extra spicy” menu items.

Sickly-sweet Additives

You’ve likely never heard of Senomyx, a biotech flavor engineering company that works with many major corporations from Kraft Foods and Nestle to Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.  This flavoring manufacturer has stated in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission: [quote]The goals of our high potency sweetener program are to allow for the reduction of calories in packaged foods and beverages and to enable our collaborators to use product labeling referencing ‘natural flavors.’[/quote]

In line with this objective, Senomyx announced in August that its new additive “Sweetmyx S617” will soon be added to PepsiCo’s Manzanita Sol and Mug Root Beer soft drinks in the United States.  This artificial ingredient will allow food and beverage companies to reduce the calorie and sugar content of their products by amplifying the sweetness of sugar and other sweeteners.

Sweetness is arguably one of the most significant tastes we experience and crave in modern culture as we are seemingly bombarded with it – sugar is added to 74% of packaged foods!  Added sugar can sneak its way into your diet even when avoiding desserts like cookies and ice cream as it is found in many savory items like crackers, bread, salsa and pasta sauce.

The Power of Sweet

When we eat, the taste receptor cells on our tongues relay information to the brain signaling the specific type of flavor.  Sweetness from sugar is particularly powerful and has been found to stimulate brain pathways similar to the way an opioid would. In fact, in a well-known study, rats addicted to cocaine chose sugar over the drug when given the choice because the stimulating “high” from sugar is more pleasurable.

The startling reality is that many people are actually addicted to the sensation of sweetness and food manufacturers are taking advantage of this.  A typical 12-ounce can of regular soda can contain as many as 46.2 grams of added sugar, far exceeding the American Heart Association’s recommendations for sugar in an entire day.  One leading brand of yogurt contains 29 grams of sugar per serving and a breakfast bar made with “real fruit” and “whole grains” lists 15 grams of sugar per serving!

Many processed foods with “healthy” marketing jargon contain a shocking amount of added sugar, as we can see in this slideshow.

Corporations have been incredibly successful adding more and more sugar to processed foods so that we keep coming back for more.

However, in light of the obesity epidemic in this country, there has been some push back to reduce sugar content of processed foods.  Processed items with labels touting less sugar or lack of high fructose corn syrup are likely to be picked up by busy moms who want healthier convenient options for their kids.  Unsurprisingly, food manufacturers are working to meet this demand with manipulation instead of simply creating healthier formulations.  They’re seeking the best ways to reduce sugar without sacrificing the intensely sweet flavors that have us hooked and coming back for more.

In theory, a product that reduces calories and added sugar sounds like a great advancement for health.  Senomyx’s new additive Sweetmyx S617 is expected to reduce calories in the two newly formulated soft drinks by 25 percent, but at what cost?

Where To Look for Sweetmyx S617 on the Label

These flavor “enhancers” are not considered actual ingredients and are not required to be listed on packaging as anything other than artificial flavors.”  Frighteningly, Senomyx’s aim is to take these additives one step further and have them labeled as “natural flavors.”  Much like MSG, these flavor enhancers operate on a neurological level to produce this heightened sweet sensation, essentially tricking the brain into thinking foods are sweeter than they actually are.  This sounds like anything but natural!

The most troubling aspect of these new additives is that limited testing has been done to prove they are safe for consumption.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has determined through public records requests that the FDA does not have detailed safety information on these flavor enhancers and the limited analysis the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association has done does not meet FDA standards.  Many recommended tests are missing, including cancer studies, reproductive studies and screens to test how ingredients affect the nervous system.  Susan Schiffman, a sweetener expert and professor at North Carolina State University has said that [quote]To put anything into the food supply with this little testing is astounding.[/quote]

How can you avoid added sugar and corporate flavor manipulation?

You won’t find Sweetmyx S617 listed on any product’s label. As the FDA is comfortable deeming Senomyx’s flavor enhancers as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS), avoid all processed foods that list “artificial flavors” among the ingredients where possible, to opt out of these untested additives.  In addition, reference Appendix One of Mira’s book The Pantry Principle for a comprehensive list of the many different names sugar can be found under and which ones to avoid.

Taste Versus Flavor

There is nothing better than the taste of biting into a fresh, homegrown tomato, juicy and full of flavor. Or is there?

For decades, commercial food manufacturers have been trying to improve upon nature’s ability to provide us with enticing flavors in our diet. The “natural flavor” additives discussed previously are just one facet of this effort to manipulate flavors.

We don’t often think about it, there is a difference between taste and flavor.  Taste is the perception of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (or savory).  Smell, temperature, texture and more all go into creating what we perceive of as flavor.  Here’s a video that explains a little about it:

Screenshot 2015-12-21 12.55.23

Flavor Manufacturing Companies

The confusion comes in when our senses are manipulated in order to convince us that something tastes good.  Processed food manufacturers employ separate companies tasked with creating flavor compounds that manipulate and attract consumers.  They spend tens of millions of dollars to find what is just the right balance to make something appealing.  For example, if it’s a snack chip how salty and fatty does it need to be, how much crunch, how much texture?  This is something that they look at for each and every product.

It goes beyond simple combinations however.  Wild Flavors, a flavor-development company based in Cincinnati, Ohio, has created an additive called “Resolver” that they claim can overcome undesirable taste components by attaching itself to a given receptor on the tongue and preventing that particular taste from being perceived.  Alternatively, companies like Givaudan and Cargill  create tastes rather than prevent them and are responsible for thousands of flavors we experience in everyday products.  They manufacture flavors for a vast number of foods and beverages, as well as pharmaceuticals, oral care products like toothpaste or mouthwash, lip balm, vitamins and even pet food.

Food Addictions

The more sinister result of this Frankenstein approach to flavor manipulation is the creation food addictions.  Global food conglomerates don’t deny that one of their goals is to develop products that consumers will purchase again and again.  It is troublesome that these companies appear to place commercial interests above public safety and health.  These addicting flavor concoctions are often made from an extensive list of chemicals.  In fact, more than 300 individual compounds may be necessary to endow a food with the flavor associated with a ripe strawberry or the fresh, homegrown tomatoes we love.

How can this type of manipulation possibly benefit consumers?

Unfortunately flavor profiles are often secret and hidden on the label under the terms “natural” or artificial flavors.  This is because they are considered valuable intellectual property.  Food manufactures try to conceal the fact that processed foods are flavored with a myriad of chemicals with unknown long-term effects on the human body and brain.

The good news is that as the public becomes more informed, and concerned, about the chemicals and artificial ingredients added to our food there has been significant backlash.  In response, some companies have begun to remove some of these harmful ingredients.  Just this summer, General Mills announced it will strip all artificial flavors and colors from its cereals by the end of 2017.  Other companies are also beginning to remove artificial ingredients from their products.  Not because they want to, but because consumers are demanding it.

This serves as a reminder of the power we have when we take personal responsibility for what we consume and take initiative to educate ourselves about what is in the foods we eat.

Are Natural Flavors Really “natural”?

If asked about the connotation of the word “natural,” descriptors like “healthy,” “fresh,” “made without chemicals” or “made in nature” come to mind. According to the Environmental Working Group, “natural flavor” is the fourth most common ingredient listed for processed food, but do we really know what this term means?

Here’s a short video that effectively uses humor to illustrate what “natural” really means.

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 9.18.45 AM

Natural Flavors Defined

The truth is that “natural flavors” are defined so broadly that they can encompass a vast number of substances that we wouldn’t consider natural. As defined by The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the Code of Federal Regulations, “natural flavor” or “natural flavoring” means [quote]the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.[/quote]

What does this mean? “Natural flavors” listed on a nutrition label does not refer to any one specific kind of additive but includes any chemical or combination of flavorings derived from any of the above “edible” sources as long as they aren’t synthetically formulated. Lisa Lefferts with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says that:

A flavor ingredient can consist of some combination of about 2,300 different substances.

Would you believe that food manufacturers can add beaver anal gland secretions to your food and call it “natural flavors”? These secretions, known as castoreum but rarely labeled as such on packaging, are often added to ice cream and utilized for “natural” vanilla and raspberry flavoring.

If that isn’t disturbing enough, natural flavors can also include GMO ingredients, mold, fungus, bug shells, pig stomach lining and animal bones. It is daunting to think that vegans trying to avoid animal products could be inadvertently eating some of these items labeled as “natural flavoring.” In addition, wine and beer are often clarified with isinglass, which is prepared from the bladder of a sturgeon, or gelatin derived from the skin and connective tissue of pigs and cows. And you won’t find isinglass on the label of your favorite beer since no law requires it.

Russel Blaylock, M.D., author of Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills, has written that even the controversial additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) falls under the “natural flavors” umbrella and can be added to processed foods with no mention of it on the label.  MSG is the sodium salt of glutamate, described as a normal neurotransmitter in the brain by its defenders.  However, when introduced to the body in high concentrations, it causes neurons to fire abnormally, literally exciting our cells to death.  Food manufacturers add this cheap, concentrated form of salt to our food in order to excite our taste buds.  It can make us crave sugar, and it interferes with satiety hormones like leptin.

Many popular processed foods list “natural flavors” among their ingredients as we can see in this slideshow.

Food manufacturers use this “natural” designation loosely to deceive consumers into believing questionable ingredients are healthy, fresh and wholesome.

“Natural flavor” is an important additive to watch out for and a good reminder to be vigilant when reading food labels in order to be fully educated about what we are consuming.