What makes food taste good, and does the information on the label answer this question? Obviously, fresh food products directly from the farm taste good, but, what about the processed food we eat?
The majority of the food Americans eat is processed. Processing food strips it of its flavour. So, what’s the secret of flavour? Why does taste matter? Is the flavouring healthy and how can we tell? Will becoming a ‘label reader’ help? Eric Schlosser’s excerpt from his book ‘Fast Food Nation’ (2001), “Why McDonald’s Fries Taste So Good”, analyses the science behind how we perceive taste, and what makes our processed food flavourful. He brings to light the secrecy of the flavour industry, and the convoluted compilation of factors that create what we think of as taste.
These factors, combined with the fact that people make repeat purchases based on taste, create the need for a flavour industry. Reading labels as part of a healthy decision-making process is complicated. The line between natural and artificial flavour, as Eric exposes, is a very blurry line indeed; and these are found in nearly every ingredient list. The processed food industry, being just that – an industry – is monetarily motivated; your health is your own problem. Real food doesn’t come in a package.
As he delves into the science of flavour and taste, Eric enlightens us as to the body’s quirky way of tasting our food. Taste buds themselves detect little more than six different tastes. The olfactory component, from the scent of the gasses released while chewing our food, accounts for 90% of the flavour (Schlosser, par 10,11). We are primarily tasting with our nose! This generally explains why the flavour industry, is one and the same with the fragrance industry, right down to being in the same building in New Jersey, New York.
Colour also plays a key role in how we perceive taste. One experiment had astonishing results with regards to colour: after eating oddly tinted food under special lighting to make it appear normal, then learning of the ‘off’ colours – a blue steak and green fries –some of the participants were physically ill. Rheology, the branch of physics concerned with flow and deformation of materials covers the topic of ‘mouthfeel’, as the texture of a food affects one’s enjoyment of it. This component of modern food is adjusted via various fats, gums, starches, emulsifiers, and stabilizers.
The vast product lines that utilize these scientific applications is staggering (Schlosser, par 9). Perfumes, deodorant, furniture polish, dishwasher detergent, shaving cream, and TV dinners! The notion that food and floor get the same lemony flavour may be a bit off-putting, making it understandable that these labels need to be less than clear, from a marketing standpoint at least.
Is it intentionally secretive?
Secrecy in this industry is standard, requiring workers to sign a nondisclosure document (Schlosser, par 7) before being granted partial access to laboratories and pilot kitchens. Originally Mc Donald’s fries were tasty because they were cooked in 93% beef tallow. A public call to lower cholesterol necessitated a shift to vegetable oil, but how to keep the flavour requirements up? Beef extract of course! Surprisingly, there is beef flavour in chicken items as well as the fries.
It isn’t just flavour that is secretive and surprising; colour added violates many religious dietary restrictions, as desiccated bodies of female Dactylopius, dried and ground into a red pigment (Schlosser, par30). The disparity between industry protected secrets and our right to know what we are consuming is telling. Schlosser goes so far as to label it intentional: “The look and the taste of what we eat now are frequently deceiving – by design" (Schlosser, par 5).
Does taste matter?
So long as food tastes good, does it matter why? Scientists believe our sense of taste was originally an adaptation to avoid being poisoned (Schlosser, par 10). Are we devolving by chemically manipulating flavour, and losing our ability to discern safe from unsafe foods by taste? Modern shoppers, spending 90% of their food dollars on processed goods, make repeat purchases based on flavour; therefore, the bottom line of the processed food industry depends on the flavour industries successes.
What’s the bottom line?
The flavour industry was born in the mid 1800’s. Sales of processed foods rose exponentially in the mid 1900’s, and therefore the revenues of the flavour industry. Processed food industry is just that, and industry, driven by monetary gains. When McDonalds made the switch to frozen potatoes to reduce costs, and applied science to ensure flavour standards were maintained, this was to maintain the demand for their most profitable menu item.
“About 90 percent of the money that Americans now spend on food goes to buy processed food” (Schlosser, par 4). The flavour industry has annual revenues of $1.4 billion (Schlosser, par 15). A can of soda, with more flavour additive by volume than most products, costs $0.05 per 12oz can – lending perspective to how much flavour must be sold to equate to a $1.4 billion annually.
The governing body has accepted GRAS (Schlosser, par19) as the safety benchmark. 'Generally recognized as safe': a status label assigned by the FDA to a listing of substances (GRAS list) not known to be hazardous to health and thus approved for use in foods.” ‘Not known to be hazardous’ - ignorance is the benchmark!! Is this benchmark high enough?
Will label reading help?
Labels give no indication of methodology of flavour additives; therefore, we have no way of knowing what flavours what we are eating. People choose based on marketing, primarily packaging, and then repeat purchases are based on taste. It seems the label is of little consequence to the average consumer. The difference between artificial and natural flavour is not based on healthfulness, but rather on methodology, as both are man-made!
Natural can be the less healthful approach, almond flavouring is a good example. The chemical benzaldehyde when derived naturally, contains a toxic by-product of hydrogen cyanide, while the modern chemical method of isolating benzaldehyde does not yield this toxin, but must be labeled artificial and sells at a lower price. Yet “consumers prefer to see natural flavours on a label” (Schlosser, par 22), believing it to be more healthful. A professor of food science at Cornell University, Terry Acree, mocks the label system by stating that “A natural flavour, is a flavour that has been derived with an out-of-date technology” (Schlosser, par23).
With Natural or Artificial “Flavour” being found on nearly every list of ingredients, with no further information, the labels are of no real use in identifying why our food tastes the way it does, nor the healthfulness of it. The fact that the two are more alike than not, despite the bad rap that the latter gets, and the level of education required to truly understand the difference anyway, diminishes the efficacy of the label to ~zero.
Tasty does not equal healthy like it did in our ancestor’s times. We have been, not so slowly, indoctrinated in to the convenience and fast food way of life; but is it good for us in the long term? The only way to be sure of the source of your foods flavour then is to eat real food.