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November 24, 2005 12:03 AM

Broken: Food label ingredient listing

IngredsBen Phillips writes:

This is a general complaint to almost all food manufacturing companies:

When I am reading the nutrition facts for a product, I am often stumped by a mysterious "Natural Flavors" or "Artificial Flavors" listing to go along with the rest of the real ingredients like "Sugar," "Flour," "Tomatoes," etc.

What if I had an allergy and thought a product might have one of my allergens in it but it only said "Natural flavor" or "Artificial flavor." What should I do?

[P.S. To our American readers - Happy Thanksgiving from This Is Broken! -mh]


Yes, I've noticed this too. I suppose it's things like extracts from bizarre and foreign plants that would take up too much room to actually print.

Usually though I think you could call their company and they would tell you.

Posted by: Jeff at November 24, 2005 12:24 AM

Note: I am about to speculate wildly. Take me with a grain of salt.

The "ingredients" list, along with the nutrition facts, is something which the FDA mandates that food manufacturers put on their products. Otherwise, most of them likely would prefer to keep this information secret. Now, the flavor of a food is one of the biggest competitive advantages one product can have over another. Formulas are often closely-guarded secrets (Coca-Cola, anyone?). I would guess that the FDA has a specific list of ingredients which it allows companies to list as simply "natural flavors" and "artificial flavors" in order to allow them to remain a secret. I would further guess that the FDA has taken care to insure that none of these ingredients are at all dangerous or known to cause allergic reactions of any sort.

I mean, if companies were allowed to list just anything as "natural/artificial flavors", they'd probably hide a lot of the icky-sounding ingredients which they currently display (erythorbic acid? potassium benzoate? I don't know what they are but they sound scary!). So, the FDA must have some specific rules about what can go under these headings.

In any case, it seems like whenever a food product contains an ingredient which *is* known to cause allegic reactions, they print it boldly somewhere ("contains peanuts", "contains dairy product", etc.).

Posted by: Kenton at November 24, 2005 12:40 AM

I'm trying to use the ingredients listed in the picture to derive what food the label is from. Soymilk, cucumber puree. Hmmm... Any ideas?

Posted by: Tim at November 24, 2005 03:12 AM

My money's on tofu tzatziki sauce.

Posted by: Jess at November 24, 2005 06:00 AM

Allergens are required to be listed or listed separately. Sorry, MH, it's not broken.


Jeff and Kenton are both right; the Flavors labels save space and also keep trade secrets.


Happy thanksgiving to you too!

Posted by: Bob at November 24, 2005 06:15 AM

Compliments to everyone who has posted so far. Very intelligent and mature correspondence deserve recognition. This is much better than some of the threads this site has witnessed lately.

Posted by: dan at November 24, 2005 06:39 AM

That's why they say "contains peanut ingredients", etc. on the wrapper somewhere, to alert you to allergic reaction potential. I dunno why it's not on the nutrition facts part, though.

Posted by: sir_flexalot at November 24, 2005 07:45 AM

I have an allergy to the herb rosemary. This is one of the things which can be placed under th generic heading of "spices" or "seasoning". Finding out weither a product contains rosemary can be like pulling teeth. It can take hours on the phone. Often it is simpler to eat only food I have eaten before, or don't have either of these two headings

Posted by: Sean P at November 24, 2005 09:35 AM

the new lables as of jan 1 06 will list the ingredients like milk, peanuts, eggs, seafood etc. this may help those with such allergies.

Posted by: E HOOT at November 24, 2005 10:10 AM

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration controls the labelling requirements including the specification of ingredients for food products. Assuming this is a label for a product being sold inthe U.S. the governing regulations are:

The regulations do seem to be quite specific about how things may be labelled, so the lack of specifics may be due to adherence to regulations, although I've not read through the regulations in detail.

Posted by: Carlos Gomez at November 24, 2005 10:46 AM

Sorry, it is broken. Plenty of times I've reacted to things that got grouped into one of those generic categories.

Fortunately I don't react in a life-threatening way, a mistake will merely be unpleasant.

Posted by: Loren Pechtel at November 24, 2005 11:18 AM

Natural flavors of artificial flavors are ingredients that have been reduced to just the chemicals that give the flavor without all of the extraneous matter that gives texture. the only difference is the ultimate source of the chemical, if it s listed as artificial the chemical was not derived from plant or animal; if it is listed as natural, it was derived from a plant or animal. natural flavors may sound safer but sometimes a chemical may be purer when derived artificially. there is one commonly used flavor that when derived artificially it is completely harmless and has no harmful effects, on the other hand the same flavor can be listed as natural flavor when it is derived from bitter almonds and when it is purified as much as possible to still stay listed as natural it contains small but measurable amounts of cyanide. it is not enough to cause any known problems but it can be present in many foods found on the shelves at grocery stores. more than protecting secrets for the manufacturers of the food the labeling natural/artificial flavors protects the flavoring makers from sharing trade secrets with the byproduct of protecting food companies from revealing the flavors that would allow people to make exact replicas of their products.

Posted by: Nathan Beal at November 24, 2005 12:38 PM

Saying that allergens are required to be listed only applies to COMMON allergens, unfortunately. That is very helpful if someone is allergic to seafood or peanuts, but not if the person is allergic to a less common ingredient. My sister is allergic to a red dye which is frequently listed only as a 'coloring agents'. She has to avoid any manufactured food or medicine that falls in the red spectrum, including the famous 'purple pill'.

Posted by: kdorian at November 24, 2005 09:02 PM

I'm allergic to peanuts, nuts, and certain forms of soy (I don't really know what kinds. I can eat soy sauce, but I can't eat many packaged meats (like sausage) and fake bacon-bits.)

Peanuts are often listed as "may contain traces of" or "processed on equipment that processes" because some people are so allergic that even that much can cause problems. I've heard of people that can't even be in the same room as someone eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I don't think manufacturers are required to list common allergies at the bottom yet, but it is good when they do.

Dyes are usually listed by number (red 40, blue 5, etc). I think being allergic to red 40 is common.

Posted by: dfgdfgdfg at November 24, 2005 09:15 PM

Dude! Is GoodExperience not 'merican? Are you Canajun?

Posted by: Kara at November 24, 2005 10:59 PM


Although I am unaware of where Mr. Hurst is from, this website is located on the internet that can be viewed by anybody around the world with a computer and an internet connection.

Posted by: Andrew Hoffman at November 24, 2005 11:53 PM

Just ask McDonald's. They know all about fake and crappy food, as they continue to display:

Posted by: at November 25, 2005 02:50 AM

Sulfites. Damned things are lethal and well-hidden.

Posted by: sparky at November 25, 2005 04:28 AM

I am a vegetarian and when I see something like “natural flavors,” I have no idea if the product contains meat or not. I wish food companies would label food with things like “vegan,” “vegetarian,” “pork-free,” “meaty as hell,” etc.

Posted by: Marketing Punk at November 25, 2005 11:02 AM

Think that's bad. Count your blessings. Canada calls ice milk ice cream even tho there's not a drop of cream in it. We call it ice milk. To find ice cream there, you have to read the fine print. (Or pick the one that's twice the price usually)

Posted by: g guy at November 25, 2005 05:17 PM

Amen, Marketing Punk!! I often deal with the same frustration...

Posted by: ambrocked at November 27, 2005 11:33 AM

Ingredients per Jeff: flavors.tinyurl/planta and flavors.tinyurl/plantx

Posted by: Poindexter T Quakenfuss at November 27, 2005 02:08 PM

There is nothign like a little all natural human urine to live up some food.

Posted by: emanon at November 28, 2005 11:36 AM

Someone said: "(erythorbic acid? potassium benzoate? I don't know what they are but they sound scary!)"

That's actually just as big of a problem: people fearing things with "scary names".

Potassium benzoate is just potassium salt, a simple preservative.

Erythorbic acid is vegetable derived and produced from sucrose. It's an antioxidant (i.e. preservative) and an isomer of vitamin C.

If you don't like preservatives, try and google a list of bacteria your body will be battling (and eventually losing to) on a regular basis without them.

It's like P.J. O'Rourke said on the complaints over auto pullution. You can have that or streets knee deep in horse dung. Do you want to die of cancer at age eighty or typhoid fever at age nine? Life expectancy keeps going up, folks. Chill.

Posted by: Citizen Of Trantor at November 28, 2005 12:30 PM

Anyone can have any allergy to anything, whether natural or artifical, so I am going to dispense some sage knowlege gained from a friend of mine who was definately broken- "if it doesnt burn your skin, its ok to inhale" should we be playing the role of consumers as well as guinea pig ?

Posted by: smartypants at November 28, 2005 04:25 PM

Natural and Artificial flavors are usually exactly the same thing (chemicals) but found in different ways. The chemical for banana flavoring can be found in the banana peel or made in a lab

Posted by: ChrisB at November 28, 2005 06:41 PM

This is broken. I'm vegan, and it would be great if companies would list whether something is animal derived under "natural flavorings." It is not easy to get a straight answer from the companies. It also requires that you identify the product in the store, write it down, then contact them, then buy it later. I pretty much stick with products than self-identify as "vegetarian" or "vegan" on the packaging if it's something I haven't already researched. More and more natural/organic type products are doing this, so I hope it becomes a standard.

I found out that I am allergic to a spice called chevril. I would have severe reactions to things and didn't know what caused it. I finally isolated it when I bought a spice mix that contained chevril and had a reaction. I was able to figure it out by process of elimination. The "spices" category on labels is very annoying because even now that I know, I can't be 100% I'm avoiding it. Luckily, chevril is used only rarely as an ingredient, at least in the US. I totally sympathize with the person who is allergic to a common spice, rosemary.

Posted by: Dawn N at November 29, 2005 10:34 AM

Some of you are soooo close. One of the reasons an ingredient falls into the "flavorings" category is because it doesn't meet the minimum requirements to be called "something".

In order for "something" to be called Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) it has to meet a minimum purity level, (otherwise you could mix 5% MSG with 95% sawdust and call it MSG. So, if MSG, for example, is added and it is less than 96% pure, it can only be listed as "FLAVORING"!!

Needless to say it makes life real hard for those of us with an acute sensitivity (not allergy like many think) to something like MSG - HI HO Headaches - AWAAAAAAYYYYYYYY

Posted by: Tom at December 2, 2005 04:17 PM

page 119-129 (subchapter "food product design") in "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser address this very topic, it is just a long list of chemicals really...

Posted by: Bob at February 15, 2006 12:11 AM

I have severe reactions to certain preservatives and nitrates, but both are generally listed only as "preservatives" and "nitrates"

I usually have to stick to whole foods or things I've tried before. I know that many products people have reactions to are listed, but not everyone is allergic to peanuts and milk.

Posted by: Casey at February 27, 2006 01:15 AM

I have severe reactions to certain preservatives and nitrates, but both are generally listed only as "preservatives" and "nitrates"

I usually have to stick to whole foods or things I've tried before. I know that many products people have reactions to are listed, but not everyone is allergic to peanuts and milk.

Posted by: Casey at February 27, 2006 01:15 AM

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