In one of those naked PR moves, Nestlé has announced it would only use natural flavourings and colours in its chocolate and candy from now on in the US – a mere three years (almost to the day) after they did so in the UK.
Which means it's as good a time as ever to remember that "natural" does not actually mean better. The natural stuff is just as processed, and comes from places like beaver arses and insects.
There's nothing inherently wrong with natural flavourings and dyes that come from less-than-savoury animal parts, of course – unless you're a strict vegetarian, obviously. But castoreum, which is the vanilla flavour from beaver arses, and Natural Red 4, a red dye made from squashed scale insects, are good checks on our visceral reactions to words like "natural" and "artificial".
Much like Europe, the US Food and Drug Administration has strict definitions for natural and artificial flavours. The short explanation is that natural flavours are derived from plant or animal material, while artificial flavours are synthesised by chemists in a lab.
"Natural" may evoke those idyllic images of leisurely roasted coffee beans or hand-chopped strawberries, but nope, full stop. It's all chemists in labs. Extracting pure flavour molecules from food requires solvents and preservatives. Natural and artificial flavourings alike can contain dozens of ingredients that aren't listed in final packaging.
And a natural flavouring doesn't have to correspond with its natural ingredient, either. There's an entire category in the US regulation called WONF, or "With Other Natural Flavours". Raspberry flavour, for example, can be enhanced with strawberry, jasmine and orris root. What you taste is not what you get.
None of this is a big secret. Natural flavourings are an issue that manage to unite the crunchiest of the crunchy with the people who like to shake their heads at crunchy hippies. We can all do with less processed food. But let's not pretend that swapping in natural flavours in a chocolate bar makes it any better.
Top Image: photo of a Lion bar via Nestlé