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Consumers crave flavor, variety and novelty in their food, and manufacturers are happy to comply (cappuccino flavored chips, anyone?). Advances in chemistry that support the wide variety of bold, often exotic flavors on the market are colliding with the trend toward whole foods and natural ingredients. We learn about the “flavor houses” that meet demand for new tastes and how the companies rolling them out are balancing sometimes contradictory requests from their customers.
- Annie Gasparro Food retail reporter, The Wall Street Journal
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo.
MR. MARC FISHERLater this hour, we consider the secret history of Wonder Woman, beyond her alter ego, Diana Prince. But first, for years, many Americans have eaten snacks and meals made, at least, in part with artificial flavors. Cool Ranch, after all, does not grow on trees, ah, I thought it did. Anyway, today, demand for bold concoctions like Thai tomato coconut bisque is running up against a desire voiced by a growing number of consumers, for more natural ingredients.
MR. MARC FISHERAs anxiety over additives, ratchets up, for example, Subway discontinued use of an ingredient after complaints it could be found in both their bread and yoga mats. Here to tell us how companies at the intersection of these trends are trying to keep everyone happy is Annie Gasparro, she is a food retail reporter in The Chicago Bureau of The Wall Street Journal. Welcome.
MS. ANNIE GASPARROHi.
FISHERSo, Michael Pollan, the famous food writer, has summed up this push for more natural foods, with his advice to eat food, not too much, mostly plants. That does not describe the diet of most people, I'm aware of, certainly most Americans. Why...
FISHER...why do companies rely on flavor additives as ingredients, rather than using the real thing.
GASPARROIt's a lot cheaper to concoct flavors using synthetic ingredients than to go pick them off a tree. As you can imagine, there are crop variations for different crops like say, limes. You're gonna have inconsistency if you try to use real limes for a key lime yogurt. So they have come up with ways to create more consistent products, cheaper products and to allow them to come up with some really unique flavors too.
FISHERAnd you have written about the sheer number of options that are available, which is really quite startling. There's one company that offers about 1,000 varieties of banana flavor, alone. Were you able to get a sense of what ingredients...
FISHER...create these variations on a theme and how much actual banana those 1,000 offerings might contain?
GASPARROWell, the secret flavoring concoctions are very -- held very closely. They don't want their concoctions to get out because then they're gonna run into competition. So the flavor houses are very, very secretive about what they put in their flavorings and you can see that by even just looking at a nutrition label. It will say something like, "Natural Flavor" or "Natural and Artificial Flavor" because they don't want us to know what exactly is in there. Not necessarily because of safety concerns but more because it's like a secret concoction.
FISHERYou can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. And, Annie Gasparro, you write about these 1,000 banana flavors in The Wall Street Journal and you write about what you just mentioned, these flavor houses and these are companies that produce all sorts of concoctions, they're specialists who do the research that creates these additives and, as I understand it, they're not required to say what these additives are made of, there's no law that says, that those ingredients have to be listed on a label.
GASPARRORight, so if it's part of a natural flavoring or an artificial flavoring, then that's all they're required to say on ingredient labels. But other additives that may be affect the texture or the sweetness, like, high fructose corn syrup or maltodextrin, those are required to be listed separately. So that's where you get the really long ingredient list that you see on the back of some processed food.
FISHERAnd the ones that they're not required to tell us about, were you able to find out what those are and are they -- are they just standard laboratory chemicals or is there something more nefarious going on there?
FISHERSometimes, you know, to create something like a strawberry flavor, they will extract the part of the strawberry that creates that reaction in our taste buds and then they will synthetically recreate that, so they don't have to use a real strawberry every time but it still tastes like a strawberry. So a lot of them are manufactured that way and then you also have a growing interest in natural flavors.
GASPARROSo with the pushback from some consumers, the food companies are asking flavor houses to come up with all natural ingredients and all natural flavorings. So you're seeing more real, natural flavors and go into these concoctions as consumers demand it.
FISHERAnd you mentioned in one of the pieces you wrote, that many of these added flavor ingredients are non controversial, the kinds of distilled products that you mentioned, but that others may cause a backlash from consumers, including the sweetener Aspartame, which some say is carcinogenic and an ingredient called castoreum which you describe as an anal excretion from beavers.
FISHERI don't think that's one that they're going to be too eager to put out there on their labels.
GASPARRORight, and that ingredient, funny enough, is all natural. So just because an ingredient is all natural, doesn't mean it's necessarily appetizing, but more and more vanilla flavor concoctions are using other ingredients instead of castoreum because of the backlash, as you could imagine.
FISHERSo let's talk about that backlash, obviously, we're living in a period where, at least, for some portion of the country, the whole idea of natural or organic foods is highly appealing and people are even willing to pay a premium for such products. So is this phenomenon that you're writing about, these artificial flavors, is that aimed at and reaching a different demographic than the one that shops at Whole Foods or does everyone consume both of these things in a sort of contradictory fashion?
GASPARROIt is definitely still a small percentage of consumers that are buying natural and organic foods. But because it's growing so quickly, you're seeing natural and organic popup a lot more at places like Wal-Mart and Target than just at the specialty places like Whole Foods. So it's definitely expanding and as Wal-Mart comes out with its own store brand of organic and natural foods, than that allows the price to be a little bit lower and reach more people. A lot of people say that they would buy organic food but they just can't afford it.
FISHERNow, a number of the concoctions that you write about sound like the sort of thing that people might interested in, for about a minute or so. And, you know, whether they are things like, wavy mango salsa or wasabi ginger flavors or cheddar bacon Mac 'n cheese, I mean, all of these things are the sort of thing that might be intriguing in the moment but it's hard to imagine that they'll become enormously popular. So what are these companies thinking when they put out this immense variety of products?
GASPARROFood sales have definitely slowed, there has been a big pullback in consumers using their money toward groceries. So food companies are really fighting tooth and nail to get some attention, and, you know, even if cappuccino potato chips don't make, you know, aren't a lasting sales hit, they're definitely gonna turn some attention toward the potato chip aisle and toward Lay's. So the company, sometimes, they know that it's just gonna be a limited time novelty item but if it attracts attention to their brand and to their grocery aisle, then that's all they need to get some incremental sales.
FISHERYou -- another thing you've written about is that companies are sometimes, kind of, shy about when they make healthy changes to their menu or products. Why -- what would drive a company, a food company, to try to keep that quiet when they're giving consumers what they say they want?
GASPARROWell, after we talked about it, still a small percentage that actually buys organic and natural foods, so the main portion of Americans still want food that tastes good and they don't care at what costs health wise. So if, say, California Pizza Kitchen, for instance, lowered the sodium in their frozen pizzas that are made by Nestle, and they did not want to tell people that because for most people that aren't concerned about how much sodium they have, they would taste it and say, oh, I can tell a difference, it's not nearly as good anymore. So they're trying to cater to the consumers that want the healthier food while not alienating the rest of the bunch who just want it to taste good.
FISHERAnd if there -- I guess, there's some evidence that consumers are sometimes alienated by those kinds of changes. When McDonald's introduced salads, a decade ago, they thought this was something that consumers were demanding but those salads never amounted to more than three percent of their sales, in this country. And then when they announced that they would start cooking French fries in oil free of trans-fats, they were flooded with complaints, why?
GASPARRORight. It's exact -- that is exactly the point. It's just such a fine line, when you're a food company, to try to cater to both sides. So, you know, here they think they're making a great decision and thinking about consumers health and yet they still get backlash from another group of consumers.
FISHERAnnie Gasparro is a food retail reporter in The Chicago Bureau of The Wall Street Journal. Thanks so much for joining us.
FISHERShe joined us by phone from Chicago, and when we come back, after a short break, we'll switch gears and talk about Wonder Woman, the secret history of Wonder Woman with the author of a new book by that title, Jill Lepore, of Harvard University. That's coming up after a break, I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post and this is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
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