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Flavours and Aromas

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Taste and smell are the senses that most influence our individual food choices, yet the craving for flavour has been a largely unexamined force in history

Taste and smell are the senses that most influence our individual food choices, yet the craving for flavour has been a largely unexamined force in history.

Taste and smell are the senses that most influence our individual food choices, yet the craving for flavour has been a largely unexamined force in history.

Teachers today don't tell us that the fiercest battles were fought between Europeans, who wanted to access oriental spices, and the Turks and Arabs, who wanted to protect their markets. It was access to black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla and other precious oriental spices that motivated Columbus to seek another sea route to India. As we know, he never arrived; instead, he discovered America, from where he took red pepper (capsicum), a variety of chilies, sugar, cocoa and tobacco home to Europe. Ironically, these became more lucrative than the commodities of the "spice wars."

Today, "flavour" strategists have discovered a new battlefield. While natural spices and seasonings are still highly valued in whole foods kitchens, it's the flavours and aromas concocted in laboratories that drive and dominate the market.

Manufacturers know that flavour is the most decisive factor in consumers' acceptance of food. They invest heavily in research to guarantee their products have just the right tastes and smells. Ketchup, for example, must have just have the right aroma; yogurt and ice cream must satisfy the palate with a wide variety of distinct fruit flavors flavours that taste like real fruit. But are they real? Surprise, surprise, they are not! You will, of course, find minute bits of natural fruit in the yogurt to at least give the sense of a natural product, but these bits are hardly big enough to provide any flavour. Moreover, there aren't enough strawberries grown worldwide to fill even the American demand for strawberry-flavoured yogurt.

So, artificial flavours fill the gap. They aren't required to be labeled "artificial"; as a matter of fact, flavour manufacturers in Europe and North America, with the help of their lawyers, have managed to circumvent legislation and are allowed to call synthetic flavours and aromas "natural" because they are made from natural ingredients sawdust for instance. Yes, you read it right, sawdust! A "natural" strawberry, peach, apple, nut or coffee aroma needn't come from the fruit itself. Raspberry flavour, for instance, can be produced from cedar wood and oil with the help of a fungus, which all appear in nature somewhere. Hence, in the eyes of the regulators, the end product is natural.

So, when you check the labels of the food items in your shopping basket, you may read the following flavouring declarations: natural flavour, artificial flavouring, or just aroma. To list the compounded chemicals that make up the flavours and aromas is not a requirement, thanks to the flavour-makers' legal teams. And the confusion doesn't end there. Some flavour imitations are not natural at all (e.g. imitation vanilla). Here, the industry found a chemical with a flavour strikingly similar to vanilla beans. This chemical is actually used as a lice killer, but with the deceiving name "vanillin," it might never be suspected as such.

As side-effects of the so-called natural flavours or artificial flavours and aroma have not yet been explored, my advice is, load up with the old-fashioned spices and seasonings and flavour your own food. Mix fresh fruit in season into your plain natural yogurt. Your palate will thank you for that.

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