The fresh jasmine blossoms that flavour Canton Jasmine Pearls by Canton Tea

black&white #11: Flavourings: the good, the bad and the ugly

3 min steep

Flavoured tea and herbal infusions have been around for hundreds of years. Take Jasmine Pearls. This prized green tea is traditionally flavoured using fresh jasmine flowers. As you’d expect, our pearls of green tea spend six rapturous nights, blanketed with fresh blossom, absorbing the naturally heady scent. Similarly, infusions of mint, chamomile, ginger and countless other herbs, spices, seeds, flowers, roots and leaves have been used for millennia to relax, revive, get high, treat ailments and even conjure magic.

01 | Jasmine blossoms in Yunnan, China.

But in recent decades, as the mega food corps advanced in food and flavour technology (see last newsletter), the flavours added to our food and drink started to derive from artificial chemicals or biotech inventions, rather than the original fruit, herb or flower they purport to be. Even products claiming “100% natural flavours”, at least in the UK, Europe and the US, do not need to contain the ingredient of the target flavour. 

Government regulations define natural flavours as those that derive their aroma or flavour chemicals from plant or animal sources, including fruit, meat, fish, spices, herbs, roots, leaves, buds or bark that are distilled, fermented or otherwise manipulated in a lab.

The regulations do not restrict the dozens of other ingredients like preservatives and solvents that can go into a so-called natural flavour. Ultimately, because of the wide variety of ingredients that typically go into ‘natural’ flavourings, “there does not seem to be much difference between natural and artificial flavours,” said David Andrews, a scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organisation.

One ‘natural’ flavouring called castoreum, has been used in both food and perfume products to replicate sweet flavours like vanilla and strawberry over the past 100 years. Castoreum, however, is only natural in that it comes from an animal – it’s a secretion from the anal glands of beaver - no whiff of a strawberry. Happily, food manufacturers have found alternatives to castoreum and today you’re unlikely to find it in your strawberry ice cream. It is however still found in mass-produced perfume - which is why many perfumes aren’t vegan. 

02 | Vanilla infused perfumes. Photograph by Stella Dimitrova.

So called ‘natural flavourings’ that come from multiple, unknown ingredients can throw up issues for people with allergies and anyone trying to avoid animal products. Vanillin, the primary component of the extract of the vanilla bean, can be extracted from a number of natural sources, including coffee beans, apple, orange pips, and wheat bran, through a process called ferulic acid fermentation. It can still be labelled a ‘natural flavour’ in Europe, the UK and the US. 

Though there are unlikely to be any negative health effects of these not-so-natural flavourings, any possible health benefits are unlikely to match the original thing. Real vanilla extract, for example, is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and rich in antioxidants – and may help promote heart health, inhibit the growth of bacterial cells and treat conditions like arthritis. It also tastes better, which is why we use real Madagascan vanilla pods, produced traditionally by a fair trade cooperative, in our luxurious Canton Chocolate Noir blend. But, not everyone can have real vanilla. As one of the most popular flavourings in the world, demand for pure vanilla extract constantly outstrips supply. In 2018, the price of Madagascan vanilla briefly exceeded the price of silver after the previous year's crop was destroyed by a cyclone. As we were unwilling to compromise our recipe (and values) by using an artificial or semi-natural alternative or a lower grade vanilla, we absorbed the price increase to maintain the quality of the tea (more on that here).

03 |  Sun-dried vanilla pods in Madagascar's SAVA region for Canton Chocolate Noir.

Similarly, our Berry and Hibiscus infusion is an authentic, natural fruit blend packed with antioxidant-rich aronia berries, elderberries, rosehip, liquorice, elderflower, apple and hibiscus petals – plus real ‘from the fruit’ extracts of blueberry, strawberry and blackcurrant. That means it really is 100% natural – which to me, means the ingredients listed actually come from the berry, herb, flower and spice named in the ingredients. So at risk of labouring the point, the strawberry flavour comes from the strawberry, not a mushroom, beaver or anything else rendered through a laboratory.

04 | A farm worker in Burkina Faso where we source our hibiscus.

   

05 | The hibiscus flowers we use for Canton Berry & Hibiscus.

  

Sure, there’s a place for artificial flavourings, but the ‘natural flavour’ label feels like consumers are being misled by disingenuous claims of food corps and poor government regulation.

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