Could The Term 'Natural Flavour' Be Hiding MSG?
Do you read ingredient lists when you are buying a packaged food? I hope so - because most of the time looking at the calories, fat and sugar is only giving you half the story about what you are putting into your body. Sure, it may be fat free or sugar free or help you get the most bang for your weight watchers points, but if it contains a list of chemicals you can't pronounce and may actually be styrofoam - are you doing your body any favours? I am exaggerating of course, there are regulating bodies in place at least in Canada that would never let you eat styrofoam. Now that you're going to start reading labels, you will notice that a sneaky phrase tends to show up quite a bit at the end of these lists, one that many of my patients seem to be confused about. The term 'natural flavours' is what I am referring to, and I get questions about wether this could secretly mean MSG, wether it is made out of bugs, or if this illusive substance could
cause be bad for our long term health on a regular basis. Read on to learn about some of the regulations when it comes to 'natural flavours' in Canada, and what this term REALLY means.
The definition of a natural flavour is somewhat hidden when it comes to Canadian regulations, but after some digging I found out that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency states 'sources that impart flavours that have been derived from a plant or animal source, may be claimed to be "natural". (1) What this means is that a natural flavour is a concentrated extract from a natural source, added to a food to give it an extra boost. There is no regulation on the amount of natural flavour added to a product, and it is up to the consumer to moderate their own intake. So now that you can be guaranteed that a natural flavour is from a natural source- can you be confident it is safe? The problem is that just because it comes from something natural doesn't mean it is good for you- like high fructose corn syrup (obviously from corn), MSG (derived from
molasses, starch, sugar-cane, exc), or that you WANT to eat it like in the case of castoreum (a natural flavouring derived from beaver glandular excretions) or certain beetles used to add strawberry or raspberry flavours. The word 'natural' often tricks us into thinking it must be healthy or desirable or from things we could find in our gardens- which is obviously not always the case. When it comes down to the meticulous extraction of an element from a natural source, one question to ask yourself is if this is really better than synthetic production of flavours? I am not convinced, but many of us may favour 'natural flavours' as a preferred ingredient in a food list. The other downside to having foods containing potent flavours, either natural or artificial, is that it may train us to expect this intensity in whole foods where it might not exist. This could leave our disappointed taste buds craving the natural flavouring found in packaged items, along with the added salt and sugar.
Concerning questions about MSG, it SEEMS like regulations may allow a small amount of MSG to fall under the title of natural flavor, but if any MSG is directly
added to enhance the product in any way then it must be specified on the label and in the ingredient list. The grey area seems to pop up when ingredients that contain MSG naturally, such as hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP), hydrolyzed soy protein (HSP), hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP), yeast extracts or soya sauce are added as 'natural flavours' which can then indirectly expose consumers to MSG consumption. MSG sensitivity is a relatively common sensitivity when it comes to food additives, and can cause symptoms ranging from headaches and nausea to chest pain about 20 mins after consumption. (2,3)
If you think you are sensitive to MSG or natural flavours, the best way to find out is to avoid packaged and prepared foods with these additives for a period of time and then reintroduce slowly, monitoring your symptoms. Many times as a Naturopathic Doctor I see a dose dependent response in these types of sensitivities too - for example after elimination you may be able to have foods you are normally sensitive to once in a while but if you have them several times a week symptoms may be triggered again. If you decide to assess foods for their content of natural flavours for a health promotion and prevention standpoint, keep in mind that ingredient lists are always formulated according to weight, so the farther down on the list the ingredient natural flavours is the less there is in the product. Sticking to a diet of real food which is what I recommend whenever possible is a sure-fire way to avoid these mystery additives.
Remember life is about balance - try not to be afraid of foods always dwelling on negativity and fear, but make choices more carefully when it comes to your every-day diet and foods you are eating often.
- Dr. Sarah Penney, ND, MSc
1. N.A. Canadian Food Inspection Agency: Methods of Product Claims. Accessed July 30,
2014. Available at http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/labelling/food-labelling-for-industry/
2. N.A. Eat Right Ontario: The Truth About MSG. Accessed July 30, 2014. Available at:
3. N.A. Health Canada: Monosodium Glutamate - Questions and Answers. Referenced July
30, 2014. Available at: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/addit/msg_qa-qr-eng.php