Last spring, University alum Supriya Kelkar noticed something peculiar about her vegetarian Lipton pasta sauce. It tasted distinctly “meaty,” she said. She examined the back of her label and none of the ingredients contained meat, but the words “natural flavors” gave her pause.
Concerned, Kelkar, a vegetarian, got in contact with various manufacturers including Campbell’s soup division and Unilever Best Food Services, Lipton’s parent company. In a series of e-mails, both Lipton and Campbell’s acknowledged that some products, even those believed to be vegetarian, could contain dairy, egg or meat products.
“I contacted these companies, and I was told it was safe to assume that the products I had probably had meat,” Kelkar said.
The term “natural flavors” can include any “substance designed to impart flavor derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice … meat, seafood, poultry,” according to the Food and Drug Administration’s website.
The explicit contents of “natural flavors” must be listed in a product only if the ingredient is a potential allergen, said John Faulkner, director of brand communication for the Campbell’s Soup Co.
After her own investigation, Kelkar was upset at the ambiguity of the term “natural flavors.”
“It’s absurd that the FDA doesn’t have a specific rule regarding the contents of natural flavors,” Kelkar said.
Faulkner attempted to clarify the confusion.
“Any soup that claims to be labeled vegetarian is vegetarian. The food industry can use many ingredients to create ‘meaty flavors,'” Faulkner said.
Faulkner said he was unable to give a definite answer on natural flavors.
“The term (natural flavors) is a catch-all for spices. Our spice vendor, McCormick, uses a variety of products in their spices,” Faulkner said.
Neither the FDA nor McCormick returned calls for comment.
Ruth Blackburn, the nutritional specialist for Residential Dining Services at the University, admitted the inherent problems with “natural flavors.”
“Natural flavors have always been a problem for vegetarians,” Blackburn said.
“A company may not tell you the content of natural flavors because they want flexibility, they want to use what’s less expensive,” she added.
Blackburn said that because almost all of the University’s residence hall meals are made from scratch, they can keep an accurate list of all the ingredients and can offer full disclosure on all the dishes prepared.
She did say that while the University rarely uses manufactured goods, some of those products may contain natural flavors.
“Some products we use, like our Chef Boyardee Cheese Ravioli contain ‘natural flavors,'” Blackburn said.
Blackburn said the University offers complete and customizable programs for both vegetarians and vegans and produced a list of all the vegetarian and vegan dishes the school offers. No items on the list had “natural flavors” in the list of ingredients.
At a Residential Dining Services meeting last night in East Quad Residence Hall, vegan and vegetarian students simultaneously expressed their satisfaction with the University’s dining options and their wariness of “natural flavors”.
LSA sophomore Yosief Gheresus, a vegan, said he always checks the labels of the food he purchases.
“I never gave it any thought before but then I realized ‘natural flavors’ could be anything. Spices are natural, so is chicken stock. It makes me very worried,” Gheresus said.