Food For Thought Wednesday February 15, 2017

The Strawberry Effect: Not So Natural Flavor

By: Sara Talcott - VP of Marketing and Communications

strawberries-in-lab

“Dear Maple Hill. I recently tried your Strawberry Greek yogurt as I was excited to try a grass-fed brand. To my dismay, it appears that my cup did not have enough/any fruit in it, as I could barely see or taste the strawberries. Just wanted to let you know. Hopefully the next cup I try will be better.” – Disgruntled Consumer, Anytown, USA

The above letter, and many versions thereof, reach our inbox on a regular basis. What’s going on? Are we ignoring technical issues on our manufacturing line, or are strawberry-stealing elves rampant in our production facility? Are we cheaping out on the amount of fruit we add to our yogurts to increase our profits?

Nope. We suspect these letters complaining about low-or-missing fruit yogurt are linked to a phenomenon that we’ll call “The Strawberry Effect,” referencing Mark Schatzker’s groundbreaking 2015 book The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor. Simply put, we choose not to add “natural strawberry flavor” –or any other “natural” fruit flavor – to any of our products because as we’ll explain, these substances aren’t quite what you’d expect when you hear the word “natural.” Instead, we choose real fruit purees, with the addition of only citric acid (derived from – get this – citrus fruits) to retain freshness. Many peoples’ brains (and palates) are hardwired to expect an enhanced, heightened hit of strawberry flavor when they spoon in that first mouthful—and when they don’t taste that, they think they’ve been shorted fruit.

“When the process is complete, you have a test tube full of pure chemicals, none of which came from an actual blueberry. Chemically speaking, these compounds are identical to an “artificial” blueberry flavoring. But the government says you can label it “natural.”

Sensory experts – i.e., food scientists who specialize in engineering processed foods’ palatability—would probably tell us that not using natural flavors in our recipes is a bad idea. From a consumer perception standpoint, we are not meeting the expected (and familiar) intensity of fruit flavor usually found in sweetened yogurt, potentially disappointing new consumers. From a financial standpoint, our margins are leaner because we use more actual strawberries (expensive) versus relying on added flavor (cheaper than upping the ratio of real fruit).

Added “natural flavor” is almost impossible to avoid in processed foods, especially when the “strawberry” flavor that consumers expect isn’t a real food flavor, it’s a lab’s recreation of the fruit. A quick online audit of fifteen national brands’ strawberry yogurt ingredient panels show that almost all include “natural flavor” (the exceptions we found were Siggi’s and Traderspoint Creamery). Even “all natural” and organic brands use “natural flavor” across all of their products lines. What exactly is “natural flavor”, anyway? It is not, as you might expect, derived from the food that it is representing. This Vox interview with Mark Schatzker neatly sums up what natural flavor is (and what it isn’t):

“The Food and Drug Administration allows natural flavorings to be labeled as such because of history. Forty years ago, most synthetic flavors were quote “artificial.” …More recently, they developed the ability to make isolated flavoring chemicals in a “natural” way. It’s just a distortion of policy and a legal labeling framework.

Take a blueberry. Let’s say there are 15 chemicals that give blueberries their distinctive, wonderful flavor. Well, nature’s an interesting place, and many plants and yeast share many of the same genes. So you can find one of these flavor chemicals in, say, bark, another compound in green grass, another in yeast.

 If we want to get this blueberry flavoring from blueberries it would cost a fortune, because blueberries are expensive. But grass is cheap, bark is cheap, yeast is cheap. So flavor companies extract them using “natural means” — like acids, fermentation, and distillation. When the process is complete, you have a test tube full of pure chemicals, none of which came from an actual blueberry. Chemically speaking, these compounds are identical to an “artificial” blueberry flavoring. But the government says you can label it “natural.” Most importantly, what you’re not getting in that blueberry flavoring is all the other good stuff you get in blueberries — the vitamins, fiber, antioxidants, and so on.”

So what’s the deal? Why don’t we just add “natural” flavor to our products like everyone else? Why not give consumers what they expect? Well, like a few other against-the-grain decisions in product development (like keeping added sugar at a minimum), we’ve always thought that the addition of just real fruit puree or authentic extracts, and a touch of organic cane sugar or maple syrup, is the perfect subtle complement our yogurts and kefir. We want our consumers to discover and enjoy the unique taste experience found in 100% full-fat whole milk dairy products, which would be overpowered by using these additives. We’ve also discovered happily, that avoiding foods made with added natural flavors results in a more sensitive palate, rendering most processed foods incredibly artificial tasting. When your palate has a chance to “reset” by avoiding artificial flavors the subtlety of real food’s flavor shines.