When diligently scanning the ingredient list of products, how often do you wonder what the term ‘natural flavors’ really means? Many people assume that because it says ‘natural’ there is nothing to worry about. It’s true that we already have so much to think about when buying products; does it contain additives or preservatives, is it dairy- or gluten-free, how many types of sugar does it contain?
Do we really need to concern ourselves with natural flavors?
What is a ‘natural flavor’?
A natural flavor must be derived from a real food or natural source. However, it isn’t quite as simple as it might sound.
The Code of Federal Regulations defines a natural flavor as follows:
“For purposes of ingredient labeling, ‘natural flavors’ means flavor constitutes 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 from these foods.”
As you can see, a natural flavor is indeed originally derived from a natural food or source. But the next step is to take the isolated chemical from nature and further develop it in a laboratory.
According to the Environmental Working Group, flavors sometimes comprise more than 100 chemicals that are needed to create a specific flavor and preserve the ingredients.
“In addition to flavors themselves, these mixtures contain chemicals that have other functions. Solvents, emulsifiers, flavor modifiers and propylene glycoloften make up 80 to 90 percent of the mixture.”
Sometimes, these additives are synthetic.
“Food manufacturers can use a natural solvent such as ethanol in their flavors, but the FDA also permits them to use synthetic solvents such as propylene glycol”
The manufacturer is not legally obliged to disclose all of the ingredients used in these mixtures of ‘natural flavors’.
Artificial flavor versus natural flavor
An artificial flavor is a mixture that is entirely created in a laboratory whereas a natural flavor has its origin in nature.
David Andrews, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group explains:
“The largest difference is that natural flavors are coming from natural sources — the original ingredient is found in nature and then purified and extracted and added back into the food.”
“The differentiation is really down to the origin of those molecules, whether synthetically processed in a lab or purified in a lab but from a natural source.”
Sometimes, depending upon the chemical makeup, the difference between the two is minimal.
Why are ‘natural flavors’ added to food?
When food is processed there is a loss of flavor, therefore artificial and natural flavors are added into the food to increase the flavor and make it more appealing to consumers.
These added flavors also allow brands to create a uniform taste and flavor for their product. For example, natural or artificial flavor is often added to orange juice to allow for uniformity of taste, that way consumers can expect the same flavor from each bottle.
Not knowing exactly what constitutes a ‘natural flavor’ does raise valid concerns. The FDA has no formal definition for the term ‘natural’ and there is a lack of disclosure on the ingredient labeling.
Without full transparency, the consumer is not completely aware of what they are putting into their body. An individual could have a rare allergy to one of the natural or synthetic ingredients used. There is also the concern that “over-flavoring” occurs, resulting in an addiction to a taste and flavor that does not exist in wholefoods.
Finally, without knowing how a natural flavor is derived, our power of choice is taken from us. For example, we are not able to make the choice to say no to consuming a part of an animal that the flavor is derived from. Nor do we have the choice to say no to contributing to unsustainability of plant or animal life that is used as the source of the flavor.
As consumers we have a right to make a choice.
When buying food that has been processed, even organic brands, you have the right to know what is in your food. If in doubt, contact the manufacturer directly and ask for this information. Until full transparency is provided on the ingredient label, it is up to the consumer to ask for it.
Of course, wholefoods are completely natural and always the safest and healthiest option.