Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal: Of the roughly five thousand additives allowed into food, over half are flavorings. These thousands of taste molecules serve not only as window-dressing designed to make food hyperappealing, but often as the very foundation of the house itself. Consider KFC’s gravy, a product with at least seven flavoring ingredients, or nearly a third of the total:
Food Starch-Modified, Maltodextrin, Enriched Wheat Flour (Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Chicken Fat, Wheat Flour, Salt, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Monosodium Glutamate, Dextrose, Palm and Canola Oils, Mono- and Diglycerides, Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Natural and Artificial Flavor (with Hydrolyzed Corn Protein, Milk), Caramel Color (Treated with Sulfiting Agents), Onion Powder, Disodium Inosinate, Disodium Guanylate, Spice, Spice Extractives, with Not More Than 2% Silicon Dioxide Added as an Anticaking Agent.
This is an unusual example in the sense that you can identify most of the flavorings. More often than not, you can’t. They are tucked into the opaque designations natural flavors and artificial flavors, which include things you can taste — fruits; spicy notes; savory, salty and tangy flavors like lemon or vinegar — and substances you can’t, because they’re being used to cover up unwanted flavor. Many ingredients that go into processed food don’t actually taste very good and need to be masked. In addition to soy protein, there’s the bitter taste of most artificial sweeteners and preservatives like sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, which impart what’s known as “preservation burn.” The German company Wild has a product to modify the taste of stevia. “It has this horrible liquorice flavor that lingers,” noted Marie Wright, chief flavorist at the company. Added vitamins taste, unsurprisingly, vitamin-y. B1, in particular, can have a rotten-egg aroma.
A chef would make a gravy using poultry fat and stock, along with butter, onions, flour, cream, salt, pepper and maybe white wine, but industrial processors, for the most part, don’t have this luxury. Using real ingredients is not only more expensive, it’s often ineffective, since Mother Nature’s volatile and fragile flavors often don’t fare well during journeys through the assembly line. The potions produced by Wild; International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF); Gividuan, the world’s largest flavor company; the Swiss company Firmenich; the German outfit Symrise; Sensient, which is based in Cincinnati; and a handful of others are much more sturdy.
“If you take a fresh strawberry after processing, it’s nothing. It tastes like nothing,” said Wright, as a way of explaining why the food industry is so reliant on the $12 billion global flavoring industry. [Continue reading…]