When “Natural Flavor” Is Not What You Thought

Read food labels to avoid being tricked by natural flavor claims: Internet Scambusters #744

Claims that a food product is “natural” or that it contains “natural flavors,” could make you think, for instance, that breakfast syrup with natural flavor contains maple syrup.

But that isn’t necessarily the case, and the use of this term could mislead consumers, as we explain in this week’s issue.

We also have another food alert — about fake rice — plus the latest info on a currently raging scam warning about how you answer a key question on the phone.

Let’s get started…

When “Natural Flavor” Is Not What You Thought

Food product manufacturers want to do everything they can to encourage you to buy their stuff, so when they label the contents as “natural” or “natural flavors,” there’s almost a feeling that it must be good or safe for you.

But is it, really? And, anyway, what does “natural” mean on a food label?

Using that word may not be a scam but it can certainly be deceptive if you don’t know the answers to those questions.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been sufficiently concerned about this to issue a new warning to consumers about what’s natural and what’s not. They’re also worried that just labeling a product with the name of a flavor is misleading shoppers into thinking that flavor is the real thing.

For instance, existing regulations allow a syrup manufacturer to use the word “maple” or “maple flavored” even if the contents have never been anywhere near a maple tree!

The FDA explains: “This flavoring could come from a number of sources, including sap or bark from the maple tree. Or it could come from the herb fenugreek, which can impart a maple-like flavor.”

Often, the truth behind the flavor claim can be found somewhere on the label, if you take the time to check it out. For example, if the “maple” product contains real maple syrups, it should say so on the ingredients label.

The same goes for other flavors, like “lemon” or “grapefruit.”

In other cases, manufacturers are not allowed to use a particular word unless it contains the genuine ingredient. “Butter” shortcake would be an example — it must contain butter.

“Chocolate” is another example, although in this case, many products are allowed to alternatively use “cocoa.”

Things are a little hazier when it comes to the word “natural.”

All that current regulations require is that the “natural” flavor comes from an edible source — that is, animals, vegetables or fruits.” That’s all “natural” means.

The flavor doesn’t have to be the same flavor as implied in the name of a product. It doesn’t have to be organic or even, by some standards, what we might regard as nutritionally wholesome.

That’s why you have “naturally flavored” breakfast syrups that don’t contain any maple syrups. Or naturally flavored lemon products may not contain any lemon; they may contain a compound called Citral that comes from lemongrass and lemon myrtle.

So, next time you do your “natural” food shopping, make sure you check those ingredient labels so you know what you’re paying for.

Fake Rice Warning

In the meanwhile, we have a much more serious food warning that is as far away from “natural” as you could imagine.

We’re talking about rice that’s made from plastic — yes, plastic.

It’s not quite as bad as it sounds, because this “rice” is actually made from potatoes and what food experts call “synthetic resin.” It’s not poisonous but it can make you very sick.

It comes from China and is currently making its way across Asia, so it could be a while before the product arrives here, if ever. Best to be safe though — buy homegrown rice!

Another food to watch for, much of which originates in China, is garlic. We may grow a lot of our own in the U.S. but the nation still imports an estimated 138 million pounds of the stuff every year, mostly from China.

Food experts in Australia have recently warned that Chinese garlic is bleached, to make it whiter. It’s also sprayed with chemicals but because of different definitions in China, local producers may still label it as “organic.”

Once again, the best precaution is to buy U.S.-produced garlic, which comes mostly from California.

According to consumer watch site Living Naturally, California garlic can be easily identified because it still has some of its roots on the bottom and is generally heavier that imported varieties. The final proof is in the taste — it has a much stronger natural flavor.

Alert of the Week

You may have read or heard a lot recently about a supposed new trick that’s being called the “Can you hear me?” scam.

Victims across the nation have been receiving calls from high-pressure telesales people, mainly selling subscriptions to online premium phone services.

At some point, they supposedly ask their victim “Can you hear me?” after muttering a few difficult to understand phrases.

The conversation is being recorded, so after the consumer answers “Yes,” the question is edited out of the recording, so the victim appears to be agreeing to whatever the telesales person is selling.

They have the “proof” that you agreed to the subscription and, so the claim goes, will likely use this to frighten you into paying.

There’s no doubt that these calls have been taking place across the nation but, at the time of this writing, there was actually no evidence that the recording is being used in the way that many news outlets have claimed.

Still, it’s worth being on the alert for this in case you get a call.

If you really, really must answer, you could just reply, “I can hear you.”

However, our advice to people who receive telesales calls is simply to hang up immediately once the call connects.

If you get past that stage and “Can you hear me?” question comes up, that’s a definite signal to disconnect.

That’s it for today — we hope you enjoy your week!