What Exactly Is ‘Natural Beef Flavor’?
How “natural flavors” are made, labeled, and lurking in your food.
by Caroline Weinberg Sep 29, 2015, 1:00pm EDT
What is “natural beef flavor”?
As Gary Reineccius, a food chemist specializing in flavor research, explains, “natural beef flavoring” isn’t necessarily from beef at all. “A long time ago the food industry looked at the price of beef and said, ‘If we want to put that in ramen noodles or gravy, we can’t be extracting flavor and throwing away the beef — it’s too expensive,'” he says. “So they needed to find a way to make the flavors thatdidn’t start with meat products.”
According to Reineccius, “the flavor in beef is created during the cooking process. Food scientists identified the amino acids found in beef, added some very common sugars — starch hydrolysate — put it in a pot, added some citric acid to drop the pH, controlled moisture content, and heated it to the same temperature as meat. Then…*poof* we have meat flavor.” As a result, that “natural beef flavor” may actually be vegetarian. Once a flavor is broken down into its basic chemical components, scientists can reconstruct it and add one food’s flavor to another, creating that umami-like, “meaty” taste without the beef.
The most famous example of hidden beef flavoring is McDonald’s french fries. For decades, McDonald’s french fries were cooked in a combination of cottonseed oil and beef tallow. This made them delicious, but also laden with saturated fat. In 1990, McDonald’s bowed to public pressure and switched to frying its potatoes in pure vegetable oil. But to keep the delicious meat flavor without the cholesterol, McDonald’s added beef flavor to its fries — simply listing “natural flavors” on its ingredients list.
In 2001, the corporation was sued over the beef flavoring, with consumers who refrain from eating meat for moral, religious, or health reasons claiming that were misled into thinking the fries were vegetarian. McDonald’s beef flavoring is apparently not vegetarian (fine print on the McD’s site notes that its natural beef flavoring contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk as its starters), and the suit settled in 2002. McDonald’s has since added a section to its website clarifying that its fries are neither vegetarian nor vegan-certified. But natural beef flavor still stealthily pops up on McDonald’s menus: Notably, in its soon-to-be-served-all-day breakfast hash browns.
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