Monday, September 12, 2016

Natural or Artificial?

My dictionary defines foodie as “a person keenly interested in food.”  I tend to redefine it as a person fussy about food primarily in the interest of impressing others.  If they were interested in food, they would do more research instead of trying to be cool or trendy about what they eat.  For example, see this Daily Beast article on how Nutella, which has been a common spread in Europe for years, “conquered America” with its niche, cult, unique and elite appeal.

This thought came to me as I was listening to the car radio, hearing an ad for some product with no artificial ingredients.  I wondered whether there was a standard definition of what no artificial ingredients means.  I already know the FDA has no formal definition for natural or all natural.  When you see these words on a package, it means pretty much whatever the manufacturer wants it to mean (unless the claim is so outrageous that they get in trouble for false advertising).

The best I could come up with was an FDA definition for natural flavor, that is, 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.”  So a flavoring from any other source must be considered artificial.  But does artificial automatically mean bad, as some (fussy) folks believe?

This interesting article points out: “On a scientific level, an artificially-made flavor compound is absolutely indistinguishable from the same compound derived from a natural source.”  This is similar to the understanding that natural fertilizer, think cow-manure, must break down into the same chemical compounds that are present in processed fertilizer before plants can absorb them.  To the plants it’s all nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, along with a short list of micronutrients.  The source of these nutrients doesn’t matter.  (Plants are not fussy.)

The same article goes on to give a fairly disgusting example of “castoreum, a secretion that comes from the two castor sacs located under a beaver's tail, right next to a pair of anal glands.”  It comes from an animal, so it is considered a natural flavor and it “tastes and smells like vanilla.”  If added to your ice cream, it would be considered natural, not artificial.

Speaking of ice cream, and changing the subject as quickly as possible from beaver butts, many people also believe that frozen yogurt is the better choice.  On the contrary, as this CNN story clearly explains:  “Frozen yogurt only sounds healthier than ice cream.”  It has more sugar than ice cream to cover the tartness, and ice cream has more fat.  The benefit of fat is that it slows the absorption of sugar, which may delay the craving for more.  The biggest disadvantage of frozen yogurt is that people eating any food that they believe is healthier for them tend to eat more of it. 

So to be a good foodie, as the dictionary defines it, one must do the research rather than follow the trends or try to be a trendsetter introducing your closest friends to the latest up-and-coming fad food.  It takes a bit of research and understanding of science, some critical thinking to get the facts; and it takes some perspective to shun the hype.  (Is that why I saw "All Natural" beef jerky in the checkout aisle recently?)

On the other hand, you could go about as normal, shopping at the upscale groceries and spending more for foods with only marginal, if any, added benefits.  Then after the meal, why not relax with the ultimate of after dinner pleasures.  It’s all-natural, made only from plants, gluten-free, with no additives or preservatives and no saturated fats, sugars, sodium or cholesterol.  Yes, light up a cigar!  (I wonder if they make organic cigars.)

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