“Natural flavors” is one of those umbrella terms food brands use to avoid listing dozens of chemicals on their products or online.
This vague ingredient is the fourth most common substance in food products, according to the Environmental Working Group. The only ingredients you’ll see more often are water, salt and sugar. Unless you’ve eaten nothing but whole foods your entire life, your palette is most likely familiar with natural flavors.
What are Natural Flavors, Really?
As the name suggests, natural flavoring is primarily comprised of chemicals that do not originate in a lab. Manufacturers harvest the ingredients in nature or collect natural byproducts from the processing of organic materials such as fruits and plants.
Natural flavors are designed to make food products taste a bit better or instill them with a distinct flavor consumers will associate with the brand. Some companies feel this approach is necessary to restore flavors that often become lost or diluted during the manufacturing process.
The strategy also ensures that every food product from a particular brand will taste the same. Natural or artificial preservatives are also used to prevent products from spoiling.
The production of orange juice, for example, leaves behind plenty of natural citrus oils. Manufacturers can easily and efficiently gather these chemicals and insert them in cartons of orange juice that might otherwise taste a little bland.
There are usually more additives, though. In the case of orange juice, including products with the enticing “100% juice” label, the brand often hires scientists to create a “flavor pack.” Some of the professionals who develop these formulas also concoct synthetic fragrances for the beauty industry.
If you bought a bunch of oranges from a local organic market and squeezed the juice yourself, the experience would be totally different. The flavor would reflect the qualities of that specific batch of oranges. It would be nothing like drinking from a bottle of Tropicana or Dole orange juice. At risk of being cynical, you might not like the truly natural taste. Compared to name brands, it may seem dull.
What Does Natural Flavors Mean?
Some of these industrial processes and marketing tactics may sound shady, but they are totally legal and are not even taking advantage of a regulatory loophole.
Here’s the legal definition of “natural flavors,” according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:
“The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. Natural flavors, include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants listed in subpart A of part 582 of this chapter, and the substances listed in 172.510 of this chapter.”
That loaded definition gives us an idea of what the FDA considers as natural flavors, but where do these ingredients come from? Are natural flavors really natural?
Where Do Natural Flavors Come From?
To break down where natural flavors come from, we have to dissect the “plants” and “substances” mentioned in the FDA’s definition.
The “plants” mentioned are kelp, red algae and dulse, a seaweed. Most people consider these foods healthy, so no worries there.
The “substances” list is a lot more to digest (no pun intended). It details more than 80 substances and the products in which they may be included in, as well as limitations on amounts and concentrations.
Most of the items don’t set off any alarms. There are many harmless and healthy staples we are acquainted with, including aloe, castor oil, maple, yucca — even myrrh (what one of the wise men brought Jesus). But not everything underneath the “natural flavors” umbrella comes from crops we know and love.
Examples of Natural Flavors
Food chemists have developed hundreds of natural flavors that can be found in some of your favorite foods and beverages. Here are some common ingredients that fall under the realm of “natural flavors”:
- Citral: extracted from lemongrass, lemon, orange and pimento, commonly used in citrus-flavored food and beverages.
- Benzaldehyde: extracted from almonds, cinnamon oil and other sources, commonly used to give food a flavor and aroma of almonds.
- Amyl acetate: A compound distilled from bananas, commonly found in banana-flavored baked goods.
- Linden ether: isolated from linden honey and the blossoms of lime tree
- Massoia lactone: an alkyl lactone that is derived from the bark of the Massoia tree, used to provide coconut-like flavor and found in cane sugar molasses and cured tobacco.
- Acetoin: organic compound that produces a buttery flavor.
These types of ingredients occur in tiny amounts that are not linked to any negative health effects, but what most people are concerned with is transparency.
There’s no legal requirement for brands to publicly disclose any natural flavoring chemicals that fall under the FDA’s “generally regarded as safe” [GRAS] category. This regulation might not provide much peace of mind, though. In 2010 the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that the GRAS requirement was inadequate and that the FDA needed to strengthen its oversight of food ingredients. Today, it’s unclear if there has been much improvement.
Physical products don’t have enough space to list every chemical, but there is no excuse for food brands omitting information from their websites. This kind of secrecy can make consumers feel like there is something unsafe to hide.
What’s the Difference Between Natural Flavors and Artificial Flavors?
Sure, on the surface, natural flavors certainly sound better for your health than artificial flavors, but what’s the difference between these two ingredient categories? While both natural and artificial flavors are synthesized in the laboratory setting, the source of these flavors is where we can find the divide.
Natural flavors can be derived from a variety of fruits, vegetables, seeds, and many other naturally sourced plants or substances. On the contrary, artificial flavors come from inedible substances like petroleum and are mixed to mimic natural flavors.
To put it in layman’s terms, take a moment to consider a food or beverage that contains banana flavoring. If distilled from an actual banana, this would be considered a natural flavor. On the contrary, artificial banana flavor would be created inside the laboratory, replicating the flavor of this naturally grown fruit through a combination of chemicals and aromas.
Considering the difference between the two, it stands to reason that natural flavors are healthier than artificial flavors, right? Not exactly. In an NPR article entitled “Is ‘Natural Flavor’ Healthier Than ‘Artificial Flavor’?,” several experts agreed that there’s little difference between natural and artificial flavors.
Chemically speaking, they are not necessarily any different or healthier than artificial flavors. Essentially, natural flavors are chemicals extracted from natural ingredients. Artificial flavors consist of the same chemicals but are developed synthetically. Nutritional value is typically found in the food itself, not the molecule used to preserve or add flavor to the food.
So, Are Natural Flavors Bad for You?
Natural flavors can be healthy or unhealthy. It’s really all about the products these flavors are in. Cheetos contain natural flavors, and they aren’t exactly a paragon of healthy eating. But then you have healthy staples with natural flavoring, such as orange juice. There are also products consumers generally regard as healthy but still contain a bit of artificial flavoring.
If you are worried about natural flavors, one of the easiest ways to deal with the issue is buying USDA-certified organic foods and food products. In the context of natural flavors, the organic label means the product derives its flavoring from organisms without modified genomes, synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers or radiation.
There is also the option of boycotting everything with the natural flavors ingredient. The downside is you might wind up being deprived of some of your favorite products.
On the other hand, plenty of foods and food products don’t need added flavoring to taste good. You could pick an apple off a tree, and it would still taste sweet. Ultimately it’s up to you to decide how important flavor is to your overall experience of eating and buying food.
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