The evolution of our modern food system has been impacted by industrial agriculture, factory farming, and the increasing demand for quick, convenient foods. Inevitably this has led to an increase in highly processed, chemically-altered food in grocery store aisles and commercial cooking environments like restaurants, airports, hotels and other eateries.
At Global Cuisine Consulting, we believe that product development should be about more than just extending the shelf life of products and calculating that alluring bliss point of foods that make them so addictive.
The health of our bodies should always be paramount, and that means having access to food that is nutritious, not just delicious. In this post, I'll explore opportunities to incorporate natural and minimally processed ingredients into recipes.
What is a ‘natural’ ingredient?
First off, it’s important to define what ‘natural’ means - especially since the buzzwords on food products can really leave you scratching your head!
When we use the word ‘natural’, we are referring to the Collins dictionary definition: “natural things exist or occur in nature and are not made or caused by people”. The direct opposite to this would be ‘artificial’, where something has been altered or man-made, such as artificial flavor, preservative or food coloring.
Where things can get really blurry is when it comes to the marketing of food products and the language used. You’ll often see the word ‘natural’ emblazoned on the front of a bag of potato chips. How can a product that’s been chemically treated and processed from its original state (a fresh potato) be labeled as natural?
According to the FDA, “natural” means that “nothing artificial or synthetic has been put into a food that wouldn’t be expected to be there” (1). However, it doesn’t address the following: food production, processing or manufacturing methods. Most importantly, the word ‘natural’ is not an indicator of a food’s nutritional content or whether it has benefits to our health.
A perfect example of this is sugar. Though sugar is a natural substance derived from a plant (sugar cane or sugar beets), it can be very detrimental to our health when consumed in excess.
What about ‘natural flavor’?
If you’re in the habit of reading ingredients on your food products, you’ll often see ‘natural flavor’ in the list. But what does it actually mean?
In short, it means that the product contains an added substance that is of plant or animal origin. While not necessarily harmful, the important thing to note is that these are typically heavily processed compounds that are chemically extracted from foods in order to increase the concentration of flavor in a food and increase its appeal to our taste buds. In the end, they aren’t created all that differently from artificial flavor, don’t add any nutritional benefits, and add more unknown variables to what we’re ingesting on a daily basis.
To provide more context, here’s a list of some common ‘natural flavors’ - the last one may surprise you!
Extracted from lemongrass, lemon, orange, and pimento. It is used in citrus-flavored beverages and sweets.
Often used to give foods an added almond flavor and aroma. Most commonly extracted from almonds and cinnamon oil.
A slightly sweet substance found in the anal secretions of mature beavers. Though no longer used frequently, it is still recognized by FDA as a ‘GRAS’ (generally recognized as safe) food additive. It is sometimes used as a substitute for vanilla in foods and perfume (2).
Natural and Minimally Processed Foods: 4 Advantages
The use of natural and minimally processed ingredients in commercial cooking is important for several reasons:
1. Nutritional Value: Natural ingredients are generally richer in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants compared to processed ingredients. Incorporating natural and minimally processed ingredients in commercial cooking helps to increase the nutritional value of dishes.
2. Flavor: Natural ingredients have a unique flavor profile that cannot be replicated by processed ingredients. Using natural ingredients in commercial cooking enhances the flavor of dishes, resulting in more complex and delicious meals.
3. Health: The use of natural and minimally processed ingredients in commercial cooking is healthier for consumers. Processed ingredients often contain artificial additives, preservatives, and chemicals that can have negative effects on health when consumed in excess.
4. Sustainability: Natural ingredients are often sourced locally and have a lower carbon footprint compared to processed ingredients that require extensive processing and transportation. Using natural ingredients in commercial cooking supports local farmers and promotes sustainability.
Overall, incorporating natural and minimally processed ingredients in commercial cooking is a way to provide healthier, tastier, and more sustainable meals for consumers. When the world’s population votes with their dollar and demands that companies put consumer health over profits, change can and will happen.
Food Insight. What is Natural? https://foodinsight.org/what-is-natural/
Healthline. Natural Flavors: Should you Eat Them? https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/natural-flavors