Part 2: Swallow This - Flavourings & Colouring

So this is the second part of my blog/book review on Swallow This by Joanna Blythman, on Flavourings and Colourings in the food industry.

 The one thing that should be crystal clear is that the process of mass food production and industrial manufacturing causes grievous bodily harm to natural ingredients, flavours, aromas and textures – mainly by the process of extreme heating, sterilisation, deodorising, pasteurisation etc, involved in the process, that actually turns the food off and rancid.

So the food, and the natural parts that are left of it, need help – and so flavourings and additives step in to boost up the food to try and trick us into thinking that the food actually tastes as it should.  

There are many companies out there who specialise in this field, for example ‘Symrise is another company active in the flavour masking field that offers manufacturers customised masking solutions for tastes you want to hide. It says that its “flavour development expertise, creative problem solving skills and technological toolbox of masking agents can help manufacturer’s overcome undesirable sensory perceptions, avoid troublesome off flavours, and suppress off notes while simultaneously increasing flavour impact.”

Joanna Blythman writes, of the above statement, ‘as you can see, in food manufacturing, getting rid of unpalatable tastes and reeks is almost as much as a preoccupation as adding in desirable ones.’

 So flavourings are two fold they help to deceive our taste buds and disguise the stink of industrial processing, but they also provide a financial function in that they are cheap to use. ‘As the cost of real food ingredients steadily mounts, manufacturers have a strong financial incentive to bump up their use of flavourings. Less cheese, more cheese flavouring. Less lemon juice, more lemon flavouring. Less beef, more beef flavouring, and so on.’

One chemist in the industry states “Flavours are used to impart or stimulate a taste characteristic of choice, to modify a flavour that is already present, to maintain the flavour character after processing or to mask some undesirable flavour to increase consumer acceptance.”

 Flavouring companies are big business and there is a flavour for everything and more. For example, there are flavours for every fruit, meat, vegetable, bread, cheese etc. But also for all condiments: salt, black pepper, ketchup, Cajun, and mustard to name a few. All nuts and diary too, but also acid masking flavourings, mouth filling flavourings, debitterising flavourings, sweetness enhancing flavourings, fat replacing flavourings, fried note flavourings, salivation enhancers etc.

‘Currently there is a grand total of 2,500 approved flavouring substances or aromatic chemicals that can be legally used to flavour food in Europe. Four hundred of these are under evaluation for safety, and so could eventually be removed. This process takes years, if not decades. The list features substances such as 1-Isopropyl-4-methylbenezene, 2,6-dimethylocta-2,4,6-triene, 2-methyl-1-phenylpropan-2-ol, cyclohexanol, 3-(1-menthoxy)propane-1,2-diol, 9-octadecenal, 1-isopentyloxy-1-propoxyethane, 3,4-dihydroxybenzoic acid, cinnamyl butyrate, 3-{(4-amino-2,2-dioxide-1H-2,1,3-benzothiadiazin-5-yl)oxy}-2, 2-dimethyl-N-propylpropanamide, lenthionine, and another 2,490 of that ilk.’


The approved list may not whet the appetite but gives you an idea of some of the chemical components involved. For example, Allyl hexanoate smells like pineapple, ethyl decadienoate like pears, while benzaldehyde and limonene conjure up bitter almond and orange. These are what are known as ‘tastants’ – chemicals that stimulate the sensory cells in our taste buds, and these are the building blocks of the flavourings that end up in our food and drink. A typical strawberry flavouring for a milk shake is composed of about 50 chemicals. ‘We can get compounds like hydrogen sulphide and dimethyl sulphide that generate the flavour of aged Cheddar, or a mixture of esters – ethyl benzoate and ethyl butyrate that give off a fruity flavour like parmesan. Amyl acetate flags up banana, and benzaldehyde does the same for cherry.’

However, if it was as simple as just mixing and matching chemicals then flavourist’s would be redundant overnight. The aping of natural flavours of the natural world is hard. Nature’s flavours are intricate, and composed of many aromatic notes. In coffee, for example there are hundreds of flavour notes and in cocoa, more than 600 flavours have so far been identified. The flavours in natural food also come wrapped in all the nutrients – proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals – and thus are healthy and taste good. In nature every element comes packaged up, with each element supporting several others – something that the food processing element destroys and kills off.

Low fat products produce a tough challenge for the flavourist’s. As fat is flavour’s friend, so if manufacturer’s decrease the fat in foods, flavour release happens more quickly and dissipates faster in the mouth. Less fat also diminishes creaminess, smoothness and viscosity. Manufactures also like to earn brownie points by reducing salt and sugar, leaving a taste gap that flavouring helps to hide. Also man-made flavours need to maintain their flavour all the way up to the sell by date. As one chemist puts it, “a flavouring must withstand whatever process it faces and deliver the character you want over the life of the product.”

 In the world of flavourings there are many subtypes, but stem from two divisions – natural flavouring and artificial flavouring. Natural flavours must be made from flavours extracted from natural sources – plants, minerals and animals. Often this bears no added benefits as nature made it healthy by providing the extract as a package, bundled with other substances and fibres contained within the fruit, plant or animal – so extracting a small part of it and using it with synthetics, generally diminishes all its health benefits.

Artificial flavourings are born in the laboratory, and often their chemical structure is not found anywhere in nature. A classic example is the artificial vanilla flavouring which is probably the most extensively used flavouring in food manufacture. This artificial vanillin is usually chemically synthesised from sawdust, petrochemicals or wood pulp, with not a vanilla pod in sight.

The distinction between all the subtypes of natural flavourings gets confusing with FTNSs, FTNFs, and WONFs (From The Named Source, From The Named Fruit, and With Other Natural Flavourings). For example, a natural black cherry flavouring can have flavourings in it that are not found in cherries but can be used to standardise the taste. Unfortunately, there are loop holes everywhere, especially in an industry which is such big business!!

 Some flavouring chemicals can be a health hazard, as the US Government’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out: ‘Flavouring chemicals are very volatile, so they evaporate into the air from their liquid or solid form and can be easily inhaled. They can also be inhaled in the form of a powder if airborne dust is created in the production process. Many of these chemicals are highly irritating to the eyes, respiratory tract and skin.’

The CDC also notes, ‘ Exposure to flavourings is known to have caused severe lung disease in some workers routinely exposed to them. In fact, respiratory problems are a known occupational hazard for those whose job is on the flavouring line of crisp, popcorn and pretzel factories.’

So if exposure to people who work with them is damaging, what is it doing to people who consume them! The CDC acknowledges, “much remains unknown regarding the toxicity of flavouring-related chemicals.”

 Colouring is just as important as the heat and damaged sustained by processing diminishes colours. The manufacturers are aware that people eat with eyes, and their eyes trick their stomachs. ‘A dash of red makes pasta sauce look as if it contains more tomato than it really does. The addition of green disguises the greyness of tinned peas. It is no exaggeration to say that certain types of processed food would be unsellable without added colouring. Like Surimi, the heavily processed minced fish protein that is supposed to imitate fresh prawns or crabmeat. This substance makes an appearance in Asian supermarkets, sushi rolls, and takeaways, with red colourings needed to make the grey protein look like shrimp/prawn. White colourings such as calcium carbonate, and titanium dioxide, endow it with the pearly whiteness of fresh crab meat.’

In 2004 a team from Southampton University concluded that six colours, which were also found to be used extensively in children’s food in combination with the preservative sodium benzoate, were causing hyperactivity and allergies in toddlers. The colourings in question – sunset yellow (E110), quinolone yellow (E104) and ponceau 4R (E124) – have gained notoriety as The Southampton Six.

The above dyes aren’t the only colours with persistent safety issues hanging over them. Artificial caramels, the sort used in cola, or to make muffins look more chocolatey, or meat to look more roasted – known as E150 in Europe have been given the ‘generally regarded as safe’ – however this status was only provided we don’t consume more than the specified accepted daily intake, this limit was calculated in 1985 when we consumed a lot less artificial caramel than we do now. AND, the safety testing was conducted by the caramel colouring industry itself – by the body known as the European Technical Caramel Association (EUTECA). Prominent independent groups do not believe this to be safe and have lobbied against it. In the USA, cola brands have reformulated their drinks to remove the most controversial caramel colourings, but in the UK the cola recipe remains the same as the Eurpoean Food Safety Authority found there was no need to change.

Like caramel, titanium dioxide E171 is another colouring that is dogged by health fears. Described by one colour company as ‘very cheap and very white’ – its also used to make paint! This colouring has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans.’ In 2013 a spokesman for Beneo, a prominent food ingredients company was heavily promoting its alternative to titanium dioxide on the grounds that it had been flagged as a possible cancer risk.

Cloudy colours are often used and are mixed with oil and gum to allow a soft drink with low natural juice content to resemble a cloudier more natural juice.

Also the Belgium company Veos markets red blood cells for colouring meat. For example, PSE meat which stands for Pale Soft Exudative has an abnormal colour and looks dry. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation explains why this happens:

‘PSE in pigs is caused by severe, short term stress prior to slaughter, for example during off-loading, handling, holding in pens and stunning. Here the animal is subjected to severe anxiety and fright caused by manhandling, fighting in the pens and bad stunning techniques. All this may result in biochemical processes in the muscle, in particular, in rapid breakdown of muscle glycogen and the meat becoming very pale with pronounced acidity and poor flavouring.’

So enter, some extra red blood cells to colour and some extra meat flavouring…mmm….delicious.