Why & How to Avoid Flavors & Fragrances
Pick up just about any personal care product at the drugstore and you'll see it hidden in plain sight amongst a lengthy ingredients list: fragrances. Peruse the packaged food at the grocery store and you'll find the vast majority include a similar culprit: flavors. What do they have in common? Both are difficult to avoid, impossible to know the composition of, and created by a handful of companies that make up the Flavors & Fragrance industry.
The sheer ubiquity of flavors & fragrance in everyday products is alarming. Since childhood, I've been religiously pouring over food & cosmetic labels and started noticing the more widespread inclusion of these two 'F's,' particularly flavors in processed food, over the past decade. Time and time again, I've picked up a nut butter or chocolate bar that always had ingredients I approved of – only to be disappointed by the sudden addition of natural flavors. I am also often disheartened by other body care brands that boast healthy ingredients, but then include fragrances among the mix.
Below, I've outlined some key facts about why flavors & fragrances are harmful, how to reduce your exposure, and how we can pave the way for better products.
Why Flavors & Fragrances are Harmful
1. They can contain anything
Pick up any packaged product and you should be able to see full list of what it contains, with the exception of alcohol (sigh) and proprietary blends (typically referring to a blend of spices or essential oils). Unfortunately for the consumer, flavors & fragrances are always considered 'proprietary' or 'trade secret' in that no one – including our regulating bodies – knows what's inside, apart from the manufacturer.
What we do know is that these mystery cocktails can include anywhere from 50 to 300 different ingredients, many of which have been flagged for safety concerns. Some ingredients are classified as endocrine disruptors that affect our hormones, while others have been shown to negatively impact our respiratory systems and skin. As fragrance industry reps contend that 'the exposure is low,' this monolithic industry (estimated to be worth $92 billion by 2024) is mostly self-regulated and keeps a tight lid on its formulations.
2. The 'natural' descriptor is misleading
Flavors or fragrances classified as natural are required to contain a compound of 'natural' origin, specifically from a plant or animal. But unless natural flavors are labeled as organic, they can also contain synthetic solvents, emulsifiers and preservatives (which may be GMO, irradiated or petroleum based). Artificial counterparts, on the other hand, consist of entirely synthetic chemicals.
3. They are increasingly ubiquitous – at a cost
Flavors and fragrances are incorporated into our products primarily for the user experience. Flavors impart an intense, perhaps unparalleled taste, while fragrances allow products to boast otherwise rare or unattainable scents. But the inclusion of either hints at two underlying factors: substandard quality of the genuine ingredients used and a desire to make products more addictive.
4. Our bodies did not evolve to tolerate them
Smell and taste are two of the most critical senses when it comes to determining whether a substances is a food, a medicine or a poison. While our noses are in general very much out of practice and therefore not nearly as keen as our ancestors, our sense of smell helped us to understand the world around us. Our innate attraction or aversion to scents was the key indicator to whether a food source was friend or foe (just think of the aroma of a ripe fruit versus spoiled meat).
In this way, taste is an extension of smell that prepares our body for what's to come. When we take a bite of food, our taste receptors decipher the composition of what we are eating and send signals to our digestive system so we can secrete the proper enzymes to break down the unique blend of nutrients. For millenia, our ancestors ate plants and animals from their ecosystem, and our bodies evolved to easily digest what was a part of their regular diets.
Now imagine a natural or synthetic flavor has found its way into your meal. How does your body react? Does your tongue understand what it's tasting, and does your gut know how to break it down? Can our bodies process these chemicals, or are they accumulating as undigestible byproducts? We likely won't know the answers to these questions until there's full transparency about their composition.
While fragrances seem like they would be less of a threat, they are in many ways more pervasive. Have you ever passed by someone that smelled like they doused themselves in an entire bottle of cologne? Or walked into a house and been hit in the nose by an air freshener? Or picked up on the lingering, intense scent of laundry detergent? Even though we may not come into physical contact with fragrance compounds in these cases, the fact that we're smelling them in means they are volatile – or in the air around us – and that we're breathing them in, and they're affecting our bodies.
As for fragrances in personal care products, these can have a more direct on our skin and beyond. The vast majority of what we apply topically soaks into our tissue, which is why it's absolutely critical to hold your body care to the same standards as the food you eat.
How to Minimize Exposure
1. Always read the ingredients
I cannot possibly emphasize enough the importance of reading through every ingredient on the products you bring into your home, whether you're adorning them, eating them, or cleaning with them. Don't be fooled by a long list of what's not in the product – always check to see what is. If you see the words 'flavor' or 'fragrance,' whether natural or not, look for a healthier alternative without.
2. Avoid products with unfamiliar ingredients in general
While these are just two of many ingredients worth avoiding, in general seek products that are only made of stuff you're familiar with. Any type of product you're coming into close proximity with should not have – and does not need – chemicals that you've never heard of. Flavors, fragrances, fillers and preservatives all tend to go hand in hand.
3. Keep it simple
The good news is that there are plenty of companies out there that still have their integrity intact and use quality ingredients. When purchasing food, stick to packaged items that only have a small handful of ingredients (ideally around 6 or less for digestibility). For cleaning supplies, keep in mind that almost everything in your home can be cleaned with castile soap and vinegar – check out the section titled 'Clean Up Your Cleaning Supplies' of this Journal post for a list of what I use in our home and apothecary.
4. Don't be deceived by alluring branding.
When it comes to body care, the branding can be especially deceptive. Just because a tiny jar of cream costs $150 or boasts an organic formulation doesn't mean it's actually good for your skin. The only way to discern whether its worth using is by checking the ingredients. Websites will often boldly display a few active ingredients but hide the full list – if you have to hunt for it, that's usually a sign they don't want you to read it.
5. Do a bit of research
If a label has a few things you don't recognize, a quick search on Google, Wikipedia or the EWG Skin Deep Database should help you make an informed decision. Just keep in mind that simpler tends to be better when it comes to our skin, and that plants in their various traditional formats (oils, infusions, butters, vinegars etc.) general have all of our topical needs covered.
Paving the Way for Better Products
If there is a product you love that is using flavors or fragrances, write to the brand. Government regulations move at a glacial pace, but consumer demand shapes how companies run. When loyal customers express concerns about questionable ingredients, the matter will certainly look into if they might lose business. According to the founder of Spindrift – one of the only sparkling waters with real fruit, not flavors – customer concerns about flavor composition (and opaque responses from suppliers) prompted their removal and shaped their commitment to authentic ingredients.
By using our collective voices and purchasing power to choose what we want to buy and use, we ultimately encourage companies to make better choices on our behalf. Flavors and fragrances are deeply entrenched in our supply chain, but if we spread the word and refuse to partake, this toxic duo will eventually go out of fashion – and both our bodies and the environment will benefit.