The Verdict on Artificial — and “Natural” — Flavorings

It has turned into a real challenge to find a supplement or a bag of feed without also finding the words “natural and artificial flavorings” among the ingredients.

Natural flavorings” sounds harmless enough — maybe it comes from a real apple or a real carrot. How about delicious real meat juice as a natural flavoring in dog food?

The ugly truth is, “natural flavorings” are created in labs from a thousand chemical substances.  Legally, only one component of “natural flavorings” needs to be taken from a vegetable, plant, spice, yeast, a meat source, poultry item, egg or dairy product. In fact, some “natural” flavorings comprise as many as 200 chemical compounds.

As simply stated by  Environmental Working Group, a consumer advocacy NGO, “Natural and artificial flavors really aren’t that different.”

Palatants: The livestock diet
The term “palatant” is used in the livestock industry to describe flavorings, where they’re used to encourage animals to eat more.  A lot of animal feed contains mostly starchy grains — barley, millet, corn — because feeding carbs is less expensive than feeding fats.  Around 75 percent of the meat industry’s cattle and hogs consume palatants at some point during their lives.  Keep in mind that farmers want animals to get big quickly before going to slaughter.

The trouble is, boosting the feed’s flavor to get animals to consume more means that the ones that aren’t killed as youngsters tend to get obese, at which point metabolic disease can rear its head.

Do we even need flavorings?
After WWII, when an agricultural revolution began, the drive to grow more food meant that food quantity suddenly became much more important than food quality.  New hybrid versions of seed along with new potent fertilizers meant farmers could grow more per acre. More food was the result, sure, but more blandness came with it.

Part of the blame falls on the lower nutritional content, higher carbohydrate content, and greater moisture content of the food.  There’s a term for this: dilution.  The dull tastes that humans have to deal with? Horses, dogs, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and chickens get the same thing with their feeds and supplements and concentrates. Like us, they’re all less interested in bland food, so flavorings are added to address that problem.

Smell makes up to 80% of the sense of taste.  So, chemicals are used to impart specific smells — the same chemicals they call “fragrance” in perfumes and personal care products, except that the food industry calls them “flavors”.  If the food smells good to a horse, dog, or human, the brain thinks it will taste good too.

By the way, believe it or not, taste receptors aren’t just on our tongues; they’re in the GI tract, too.  These receptors are sensors for fat, protein, bacteria, hormones and plant compounds, and they play a crucial role in how humans and animals feel during and after eating.

The flavor industry
The fragrance and flavor industry is expected to amass $24 billion annually.  The size of the industry alone is indicative of just how much of our food, our horses’ food, and our dogs’ food is full of flavorings.

And the industry’s real intentions are no secret. Two fragrance/flavor scientists from the Swiss company Givaudan stated outright, on a 2011 installment of 60 Minutes, that their goal was to make food addictive.

The flavor concoction
Flavorings are made from organic solvents, preservatives and emulsifiers that can account for the lion’s share of their total ingredient composition.  Apple flavoring, for example, incorporates up to 50 separate chemicals just to approximate the taste of an apple.

As for naming some of the culprits responsible, additives you may see on labels include: polyglycerol esters of fatty acid, propylene glycol, mono- and di-glycerides, polysorbate 80, benzoic acid, BHA and BHT. 

A game of manipulation
Humans, dogs and horses all want variety in what they eat. Artificial and “natural” flavors fool our taste receptors into thinking very similar foods are quite different.  When applied to bland, otherwise unappealing foods, flavoring technology stimulates our senses of smell and essentially trick our brains into experiencing a level of pleasure way out of kilter with what’s actually being eaten.  Similar to the drives behind alcoholism or drug addiction, more and more “enhanced” food is needed to keep the flavor “high” going; the more of this treated food we eat, the more we end up craving.

Author Mark Schatzker’s In his book The Dorito Effect, Mark Schatzker explains why it’s nearly impossible to “eat just one.” It’s all in the taste — not the corn itself, not the fat it contains…just the taste we get from that complex mix of flavoring chemicals. They’re a kind of opiate for the brain, and they lead to extra pounds for the body.

The upshot: our industrial food system has become good at providing a lot of carbohydrates and moisture with, in many cases, literally nothing in the way of taste. After decades of chemical pesticide and fertilizer applications, much of the soil can no longer adequately nourish plants.  Fortification is the stop-gap answer, and that means the addition of vitamins either synthetically produced or derived from coal tar.

On to horse feed, where ingredients are from the industrial food complex, but very few of them are even “whole”. Horse feed components are largely byproducts of other processes, and include wheat middlings, dried distillers grains (leftover mash from ethanol production), soybean hulls, wheat flour, corn distillers dried grains (also from ethanol production), corn germ, and de-hulled soybean meal.  After fortification (because byproducts are nutrient-poor), flavoring is added to make this stuff taste like something an animal would care to eat.

Toxins and satiety
Why do we tend to “pig out” on Big Macs, soft drinks, and chicken nuggets?  Why do we tend to eat much more reasonable amounts when we eat organic heirloom tomatoes or wild blueberries?  Because real food offers deeper satiety due to the complex of nutritional factors it contains.  Another element comes into it as well: toxins.

Organisms like plants very often contain small amounts of compounds toxic to animals. The tiny bit of cyanide in apple seeds is one example.  It’s theorized that mammal brains and gastrointestinal tracts have an evolutionary sophisticated system in place for regulating the intake of toxins.  The satiety we experience after eating real food may be a mechanism of limiting the consumption of toxins, avoiding the discomfort or damage that would result from larger amounts.

“Nature has mastered the art of hedonic density,” says Schatzker. “[That is,] food that maximizes pleasure and minimizes calories.”

The food grown on an industrial scale today is less delicious. The trouble is, the highly processed ingredients, byproducts and flavorings that make bland food more exciting are not things that we, our dogs, or our horses should eat.

The MSG connection
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavoring  typically found in pet foods, but listed as (among other names) “hydrolyzed protein”.  The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) also allows pet food companies to count MSG among the “natural flavors” or “natural flavorings”.

Other ingredients that either contain MSG or create MSG during processing include protease, maltodextrin, citric acid, carageenan, corn starch, pectin and gelatin.

MSG triggers the nervous system to overstimulation, and can even cause an inflammatory response.  The substance has been labeled as an “excitotoxin” because it stimulates cells even to the point of damage.

Makers of horse supplements and horse feeds are free to label MSG in a number of other ways: protein isolate, texturized protein, natural flavor, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed yeast, yeast extract, soy extract or concentrate, and glutamate are examples.

Excessive weight and metabolic syndrome
There’s been a rise in obesity and metabolic imbalance among dogs and horses, and we can look at a number of potential factors that explain it.  Over the last half-century, as food has lost so much of its flavor, artificial solutions to the problem have exploded.  So have the girths of our horses. And our own waistlines. Now, fewer than a third of Americans are considered slender; that is, two-thirds are considered either overweight or obese.  More than half of American dogs are now considered overweight.  Obviously, flavorings aren’t the single causative element for these troubling rises, but they just as clearly contribute something to the problem.  Keep in mind, the genuine satiety that real food provides means eating less, while still getting more nutrition.

Choosing a flavoring-free diet
If you take a minute to scan the labels on equine feeds, you’ll notice something interesting: whole-food component products like alfalfa pellets, timothy pellets, Cool Stance, Renew Gold, whole oats, whole flax seeds, and whole chia seeds do not contain flavorings of any type.  Cold-pressed or organic oils like coconut, hemp, and camelina do not include flavorings. However, highly processed oils — vegetable, soy, corn, canola — do.

You’ll also notice, if you read the labels, that nearly all supplements for horses (not BioStar’s) contain artificial or natural flavorings, including the often-secretively labeled MSG.   Will a serving of these supplements harm your animal significantly? No, but remember: it’s not just the variety or the quantity of chemical additives that’s a problem. It’s how those chemicals and the ingredients they’re combined with affect, over time, the body system at large and the GI tract in particular.

A note about pasture
In terms of carbohydrate content, pasture seeds are much richer than native grasses.  Modern pasture grasses are intended to put weight on cattle and help yield huge amounts of milk from dairy cows.  Lower fiber and higher sugar content is the goal of grass seed companies.  These same companies instruct hay farmers to cut hay in the afternoon — a time of day when sugar levels are highest.  The result is a reduction in the animals’ level of satiation, ultimately increasing calorie intake and weight.

Just as with horses, go ahead and read the labels on what you’re giving to you dogs!  If you can, feed raw. Lower the amount of kibble you’re feeding by supplementing with whole buffalo, organic chicken, salmon, venison, salmon, organic eggs or other whole foods.  Remember that dogs tend to keep a healthier weight when they eat real food.

Same thing with humans: buy real organic food, or food from a CSA or farmer’s market.  Food in a package, even when it’s labeled “organic”, can easily come with added flavorings.  Antibiotic-free chicken? A great option, but it still often has added flavorings.

True satiation comes from whole food, and this is why BioStar will never use flavorings in our supplements.

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