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What Are ‘Natural Flavors’ And Are They Actually Natural?

July 10, 2023

After salt, water, and sugar, ‘natural flavor’ is the next most common ingredient listed on food labels, but do we really even understand what it is? Aside from improving taste, there are a number of reasons food brands add flavorings to their products. The most common is to reintroduce flavor and freshness, which is often lost during pasteurization and processing. Flavoring also offers continuity and standardization for brands. Think about your favorite store-bought food products; they taste the same every time. It’s predictable and you, as the consumer, know exactly what you can expect each time you purchase it.

While we appreciate the benefits that natural flavors offer, we really wanted to better understand just how natural they are. To get to the bottom line, we did extensive research and spoke to industry expert Homer Swei, Senior Vice President, Healthy Living Science of the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

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Natural flavors aren’t much different than artificial flavoring

So, how are ‘natural flavors’ different from ‘artificial flavors?’ The main distinction between the two is their origin: natural flavors are derived from plant or animal material while artificial flavors are synthesized from inedible substances, mostly from petroleum. According to the Food and Drug Administration, natural flavoring can come from plant material, like a spice, fruit, vegetable, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or animal material, like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products.

While this definition makes natural flavoring sound like a healthier choice, flavor chemists say otherwise. Since both are synthesized and chemically manipulated in laboratories, natural and artificial flavors are virtually the same molecularly. According to Harvard researchers, the distinction between their origins actually has no indication of how safe or healthy they are.

There are a lot of labeling loopholes

Ingredient lists are confusing and that holds true for food flavoring too — but, have no fear because we’re here to help!

When it comes to the food flavoring industry, there tends to be more leniency around the ingredient lists. The rules and regulations that apply to food processors don’t apply to flavor manufacturers; they have the freedom to add synthetic emulsifiers, solvents, and preservatives without having to include them on the label. Swei explains that this is because when the components are at insignificant levels and do not have any technical or functional effect, they are denoted as ‘incidental additives’ and exempt from labeling.

Even more, a lot of brands have found loopholes where they don’t need to list ‘natural flavors’ on the package’s label at all. The citrus industry, for example, uses ‘flavor packs’ to reintroduce flavor to make the juice taste fresh again. The FDA doesn’t require these citrus companies to disclose these ‘flavor packs’ on the ingredient list because technically they’re derived from citrus, despite being fractionally distilled.

“In practice, these should really be no different than orange juice with added ‘natural flavor’ or added ‘citrus flavor.’ Fixing deceptive labeling loopholes is long overdue,” Swei says.

The bottom line

Natural flavors may derive from organic matter, but they are still chemically engineered and can actually include synthetic solvents or preservatives. Flavoring, whether ‘natural’ or ‘artificial,’ is crafted by flavor scientists with the goal to make the most mouthwatering product that has a short-lived taste, leaving customers wanting more.

“The issue isn’t that consuming one, two, or more flavor ingredients in a few foods is likely to present a health risk,” Swei says. “It’s more about the consequences of the total and growing amount of food additives that consumers are exposed to on a daily basis and over a lifetime, combined with a weak regulatory system with insufficient resources to vet and assess their safety.”

There is undoubtedly a lack of transparency in the food flavoring industry with thousands of flavor chemicals being added to our packaged foods with little FDA oversight. That being said, we can still make smart decisions as consumers. Look for the ‘USDA organic’ certification, which guarantees the packaged goods’ flavorings are produced without synthetic solvents, carrier systems or preservatives, and be mindful of added flavors on ingredient lists. At the end of the day, the flavorings are generally regarded as safe in smaller quantities, so try to limit them where you can!

Read next: Is Pesto Healthy? A Nutritionist Weighs In.

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