The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

“Flavor” Doesn't Always Mean What You Think It Does

Better Living Through Chemistry

It was interesting to read a recent piece in the Lansing State Journal in which it was noted that maple industry groups from Vermont to Michigan sent a letter to the FDA protesting food products labeled as “maple” that don't actually contain any real maple. This development came hard on the heels of a widely circulated report on the lack of real Parmesan cheese in “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese” and of a lesser scandal over a seeming lack of mozzarella in McDonald's mozzarella sticks. Could it be that people are finally waking up to the fact that when it comes to food, things aren't always what they seem?

To be fair, the McDonald's kerfuffle was more a matter of questionable quality both in terms of product and preparation than of any attempt to mislead or defraud. There really is supposed to be mozzarella in the mozzarella sticks.....somewhere. They just need to learn to cook the darn things so that the cheap cheese doesn't leech out in the process. The Parmesan-less Parmesan is a much more serious matter, although I have been beating the drum about wood fiber-filled crap in a can for many years. The mystery to me is why it took so long for everybody else to catch up. The fake maple accusation, however, represents a new front in deceptive or misleading labeling. And the only thing that keeps it from being a fairly legitimate one, the one metaphorical fly in the maple ointment, is the word “flavor.”

I know a little about real maple. My Canadian-born grandmother used to receive “care packages” from family in Quebec and Vermont containing blocks of pure maple sugar. Sometimes she'd receive a quantity of pure maple syrup from which she would make her own maple sugar. It was all wonderful and delicious, putting anything Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth concoct to shame. Those and other so-called “pancake syrups” are not considered “real” maple syrup because they are not produced by boiling maple sap to yield syrup. They're usually just some form of corn syrup or, worse, high fructose corn syrup, over which somebody passed a maple leaf. And that's where the whole “flavor” bugaboo comes into play.

Have you ever brought home a bottle of Log Cabin maple syrup? No, you haven't. Because there's not the first mention of “maple” anywhere on the label. Check it out. “Log Cabin Syrup.” Period. But due to the successful marketing of its “rich maple flavor,” we have come to think of it as maple syrup. Same goes for Mrs. Butterworth, Aunt Jemima, and most of the rest of the pancake syrups we all think of as “maple.” Not a trace of maple in the bunch. Corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, water, cellulose gum, caramel color, sodium benzoate, sodium hexametaphosphate, salt, sorbic acid – those are available in abundance in all or nearly all of them. A couple throw in a little molasses. But no maple. What they all have in common, however, is a healthy dose of natural and/or artificial flavors. And it's those added “flavors” that make things taste like maple.......or orange.......or vanilla.......or licorice......or whatever the chemists want them to taste like.

The maple folks are mad at Quaker Oats over “Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal.” They're upset with Hood over “Maple Walnut Ice Cream.” The letter sent out by maple syrup producers and by the International Maple Syrup Institute and the North American Maple Syrup Council claims that misbranding deceives the consumer and hurts those using real maple syrup. “It deceives consumers into believing they are purchasing a premium product when, in fact, they have a product of substantially lower quality.”

I've got news for the maple people: the problem is not necessarily with the producers. Misleading and deceptive practices are only effective on people who are easily misled and deceived. As H.L Mencken was fond of saying, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” Or as P.T Barnum succinctly put it, “There's a sucker born every minute.”

Simply put, if the average consumer would only learn to read labels rather than to believe high-flown advertising claims, he or she would be a lot harder to mislead. And if they took the time to learn what those labels mean, there would be a lot less deception.

Take “natural flavor,” for example. The under-informed shopper picks up a package and reads “natural flavor” on the label and automatically thinks, “Okay. Natural. That's good.” Or is it?

The Environmental Working Group maintains a “Food Scores” database of over 80,000 foods. “Natural flavor” is the fourth most common ingredient listed on the labels of those foods.

The definition of “natural flavor” under the Code of Federal Regulations is: “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” (21CFR101.22).

Both artificial and natural flavors are made by “flavorists” in a laboratory by blending either “natural” chemicals or “synthetic” chemicals to create flavorings. Added flavoring, both natural and artificial, could contain anywhere from fifty to a hundred ingredients, including solvents and preservatives. By and large “natural flavors” come from natural sources – i.e. the original ingredient is found in nature and then purified and extracted and added back into the food. However, that does not always mean that the “natural flavors” in your strawberry Pop Tart are just crushed-up strawberries. No, they are more likely to consist of chemical compounds originally found in strawberries. These substances have been chemically enhanced and added into your food in a lab rather than in a kitchen. “Artificial flavors” are just straight up synthetic chemical creations. Either way, it's all better living through chemistry.

I mean, okay, the maple producers are upset, but do they have any more reason to be pissed than vanilla makers or orange growers? How many products say “vanilla flavored” or “orange flavored” on the package? There's little to no real vanilla or orange in any of them, either. And last time I checked – which was just now – Quaker's “Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal” may have “maple” in the name, but it's not listed among the ingredients; just the usual suspects “whole grain rolled oats, sugar, natural flavor, salt, calcium carbonate, guar gum, oat flour, caramel color, reduced iron, and vitamin A palmitate.” No allusion to maple anywhere. So is “Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal” any more or less deceptive or misleading than, say, “orange” Kool-Aid? I guess if truth in labeling were carried to ridiculous extremes, the product should be called “Chemically Enhanced Naturally Flavored Faux-Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal,” but that's not likely to happen. Besides, they'd have to make the label bigger.

No, the real answer lies in educating consumers. Encourage them to read every label and know what all the gobbledygook means. If everybody who looked at a box of “Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal” would only read the label and realize, “Hey! There's no maple in there!”, the problem of “deception” would be moot. Caveat emptor. If a shopper knows that a product with “maple” in the name doesn't actually contain any maple but buys it anyway, he's the real sap. (Sorry. Couldn't resist that one.)

So let's not drag the government any deeper into our business than it already is. Besides, the trained seals at the FDA aren't going to stop jumping through Big Food's hoops anyway, so why bother sending them letters? Those bureaucrats are only interested in numbers – specifically the number of zeroes that follow a dollar sign. Better to spend your time and resources educating people in a manner that will result in informed buying decisions. Everybody from Plato to Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson to George Carlin has extolled the virtues of an educated populace, but we have yet to achieve one. I once saw a sign in a bookstore that said, “open your mind: read a book.” Where food is involved, let's start a little smaller and say, “open your mind: read a label.”

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