Have you ever read the back of a food packet? Somewhere towards the end of the list you’ll usually find an ingredient that sounds harmless. Comforting in its familiarity, flavour and its more innocent sounding cousin natural flavour are lining up in everything from purportedly healthy foods like yogurt and orange juice to things we know are health-sapping like lollies and soft drink. But what is Flavour?



Flavour is a chemical concoction made in a laboratory that mimics the smell and taste of a naturally occurring food. The flavour concoction in the food that you have bought is the companies unique blend, a taste that identifies their product over a competitors product. Because of this trade secret, the ingredients are not required to be listed or publicly disclosed. Imagine the loss in profits and brand identity if any local chip shop could use the same distinctive flavour compound as fast food french fries. All chips, or chops, or strips of licorice could masquerade as fries. It would be Willy Wonka’s dreams come true.

Sometimes you might find a label containing the term natural flavour. That sounds much more reasonable, perhaps it’s even safe enough to feed to children. Unfortunately the chemical differences between flavour and natural flavour are linguistic only. Lets look at the example of banana flavour given bFlavour (1)y Eric Schlosser in his book Fast Food Nation: What The All-American Meal Is Doing To The World. (1)

“Amyl Acetate, for example, provides the dominant note of banana flavour. When you distill it from bananas with a solvent, amyl acetate is a natural flavour. When you produce it by mixing vinegar with amyl alcohol, adding sulphuric acid as a catalyst, amyl acetate is an artificial flavour. Either way, it smells and tastes the same… natural and artificial flavours are manufactured at the same chemical plants, places few people would associate with mother nature”

As you can see, neither banana flavour nor natural banana flavour is healthy, ideal or remotely natural.

There are over 2000 man made flavour compounds that don’t need to be listed on food packets. Tiny little doses of flavour that can make your orange juice taste the same every time you buy it. Regardless of how many months it has been since the last orange harvest, or how much processing, pasteurising, extruding, centrifuging and stabilising has been done to the original orange. It’s the modern food industry’s savoir, a way to make tasteless nutrient devoid food taste like something sale-able.

As a consumer, we have no way of knowing what a flavour is derived from. Is it animal, mineral, vegetable or chemical? Vegetarians have no idea if their bread contains beef. People with allergies can be consuming their allergen. Msg, which is a known neurotoxin can be in anything. No food is safe. Even organic food can contain flavour and still receive certification.

Flavour is chemically formulated to be tasty and addictive. It’s a profit generator, ensuring repeat business and cheap production costs. A cheap drop of chemical concoction does the same job as a seasonally variable, perishable, health-full, whole-food which is more expensive to buy and more of a liability to use in a world where consumers have been accustomed to buying food that tastes, looks and behaves exactly the same, all year round.



What is that stuff? A look at the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) of a few of them confirms my suspicions. Amyl Acetate, the first ingredient in the strawberry flavour (and the only compound in banana flavour) is toxic to the kidneys. Repeat exposure is even more toxic, causing higher levels of damage, it’s also listed as being hazardous to ingest. (2) The second ingredient Amyl Butyrate “Causes eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritation… and may cause central nervous system depression” (3) What. Is. Going. On. Here? This is not food! This is poison. Lets look at another ingredient selected at random, Ethyl Amyl Ketone “The toxicological properties of this material have not been fully investigated. May cause eye and skin irritation. May cause respiratory and digestive tract irritation” (4) Even something simple sounding like Maltol “may be toxic to blood, kidneys, bladder, gastrointestinal tract. Repeated or prolonged exposure to the substance can produce target organs damage.” (5) This is even worse than I thought. The cumulative effect of this is deadly. Not a single one of the ingredients that I looked at the MSDS for is safe. None of them have been studied for carcinogenicity or mutagenicity. We have no idea if it gives you cancer, or causes birth defects. My mind is totally blown by this.

We are the guinea pigs in the modern food experiment. Food allergies are increasing in severity, lifespans are decreasing. Cancer now effects 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women, infertility affects 1 in 6 couples. Obesity, heart disease and diabetes are the modern health plagues. I’m not suggesting that flavour is the only cause in these things, but the chemicals in these food additives are toxic and health sapping.

It’s not all doom though, some ingredients are safe. Labelling laws make it tricky to decipher what’s healthy and what’s not, so lets look at some different forms of vanilla as an example to help you make healthier choices;

  • Vanilla beans/seeds- great! it’s directly from the plant.
  • Vanilla extract- that’s just vanilla beans soaked in alcohol, we can live with a little bit of that.
  • Vanilla essential oil- getting less likely to be safe as there is a lot of variation in processing and quality.
  • Natural vanilla flavour- No way!
  • Vanilla flavour- No way!!

There are so many questions we need to keep in mind when we consider the implications of purchasing or consuming foods with flavour. What are the long term effects of this ingredient? Is it cancer forming? Can it cause birth defects? Is it otherwise harmful to our health? What are the effects on our hormones, happiness and emotional states?


X Bri

Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (1) lists the ingredients for strawberry milkshake flavour as;

“amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amyl ketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyle valerate, heliotropin, hydroxphenyl-2-butonone (10% solution in alcohol), a-ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methlyactophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine, carbonate, methyl napthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essentia oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, g-undecalactone, vanillin and solvent.”


It doesn’t look so different to this list really:

“ethylhexyl, methoxycinnamate, hexyl cinnamal, butylphenyl, methylpropional, alpha-isomethyl ionone, linalool, benzophenone-3, ethylhexyl salicylate, hydroxycitronellal, citronellol, butyl methoxydibenzoylemethane, geraniol, hydroxtisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde, benzyl benzoate, limonene, benzyl cinnamate, coumarin, propylene glycol, isoeugenol, citral, eugenol, BHT, acrylates/octylacrylamide, copolymer…”

Which is a Vivienne Westwood perfume. And the safety warning on the packet suggests that it’s for external use only. *Disclaimer: I do not recommend wearing perfume. Around 60% of what you put on your skin is absorbed. (But that’s a whole other article to write, on a whole other day)

(1) Eric Schlosser. Fast Food Nation: What The All-American Meal Is Doing To The World.






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