Ever stand in the grocery store isle reading the ingredient list for a product and come across “natural flavor”? As a devoted ingredient-list reader, I know I definitely have.
I’ve seen natural flavors in everything from sausage to soy milk to gummy candy. Often, the ingredient list only mentions natural flavor, and nothing specific about what sort of flavors they’ve added.
Sometimes, however, the list gets specific. You can find natural chicken flavor in soup stock/broth, natural vanilla flavor in ice cream, and natural butter flavor in microwave popcorn.
But the term “natural flavor” is confusing. If it’s natural, why does it get listed separately? What’s the difference between natural vanilla flavor and, well, vanilla extract? What makes natural flavor different from artificial flavor?
Also… is natural flavor safe to eat?
This article will offer explore all these questions. Here are 6 interesting facts about natural flavor:
Fact #1: Natural Flavor Must Come from Natural Sources
Natural flavor refers to flavorings added to food that come from natural sources, whether animal, plant, or yeast.
The FDA offers a longer definition of natural flavor:
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.
Once extracted from its source, the result is then processed, fermented, or distilled in a lab to achieve the final flavoring.
However, when they say “natural sources,” they mean it. See this article about flavoring coming from beaver castor glands, to get an idea.
Fact #2: Natural Flavor Differs from “Real” Flavor from The Source, By a Lot
When you see natural flavors on your ingredient list, those flavors don’t come straight from the “source.”
For example, if your gummy candy has natural strawberry flavor in it, the candy wasn’t made with pureed strawberries. The flavor may have come from extracts from strawberries as well as extracts of other natural sources unrelated to strawberries. They will undergo extensive processing in a lab.
Why do this? Why not just flavor foods with the source itself?
According to an NPR article, the source may prove too expensive or supply of that source can’t keep up with demand. Also, lab-created flavors mean you can tweak the flavor to taste how you want, rather than rely on what the source provides.
Fact #3: Natural Flavor Differs from Artificial Flavor, But Not by Much
The term artificial flavor or artificial flavoring means any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof.
Do natural and artificial flavors differ in terms of tastiness, healthiness, or safety? According to every source I came across, including this one from Harvard, the answer is no.
Both natural and artificial flavors get created in a lab, and both have very similar if not the very same chemical structure for a given flavor. Neither type of flavoring has impact on the nutritional value of the food it flavors.
If anything, natural flavors, because they come from natural sources, may prove less environmentally friendly than those created in a lab, particularly if demand means overuse of a particular plant or animal species.
Also, according to some, the controlled conditions in the lab may mean artificial flavors are less risky. However, I have seen no empirical evidence of this.
If natural flavors have little health or environmental benefit, why have them?
Fact #4: We LOVE the “Natural” in Natural Flavor
Many sources I found claim that “natural flavor” is a marketing ploy.
People love the word “natural,” and let’s face it: it sounds MUCH better than “artificial,” doesn’t it? But food companies know that. Indeed, one study showed that when the word natural appears on food packaging, people perceive it as healthier.
I get it. Personally, I’ve always found the idea of food coming from “natural” sources more comforting. That’s not unreasonable, as anyone who’s studied the biological sciences knows that mucking with nature has its risks.
Yet, look around. We live in a world that has mucked with nature. We have cars, modern medicine, eyeglasses, telescopes, airplanes, packaged foods… and food flavorings. All for our convenience and pleasure.
I grew up drinking diet soda. My regular soda friends wouldn’t touch the stuff because they hated the taste, and justified their choice by saying “at least sugar is natural.” But is it?
First, there’s nothing natural about soda. Soda is carbonated water loaded with sweetener, flavorings, and colorings. It’s modern food science in a can.
And sugar, at least the kind found in soda, has undergone heavy processing and no longer resembles its natural state. As a result it’s pretty addictive and not good for you in the doses Americans eat it in (another article for another day).
Anyway, I no longer drink soda. (Except for the occasional Zevia in summertime, which has stevia and flavorings and nothing else).
My point is, researching topics like this has made me re-examine what “healthy” means, and made me look harder at whether I’m making healthy choices or just falling prey to good marketing.
Fact #5: Natural Flavors Will Cost You
I’ve noticed a pretty clear pattern when it comes to natural vs. artificial flavorings:
Packaged foods that people perceive as healthy, high quality, or organic (often found at “organic” markets such as Whole Foods or Sprouts) tend to have natural flavoring, whereas ordinary, lower-priced brands at the regular grocery store or Walmart are more likely to have artificial flavoring.
EXAMPLE: Gummy Bears
ORGANIC BRAND: Project 7 Gummy Bears have only natural flavors
REGULAR BRAND: Haribo Gummy Bears have natural and artificial flavors
When examining price per ounce, Project 7 gummy bears cost three times what Haribo’s cost. Let’s take another example:
EXAMPLE: Vanilla Ice Cream
ORGANIC BRAND: Alden’s Vanilla Bean Ice Cream (Ingredients: Milk*, Cream*, Cane Sugar*, Tapioca Syrup*, Tapioca Starch*, Vanilla Extract*, Guar Gum*, Soy Lecithin*, Ground Vanilla Beans*, Locust Bean Gum*, Xanthan Gum. *Organic)
REGULAR BRAND: Blue Bell Gold Rim Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream (Ingredients: Milk, cream, sugar, skim milk, high fructose corn syrup, natural and artificial vanilla flavor, cellulose gum, vegetable gums (guar, carrageenan, carob bean), salt, annatto color)
In this case, Alden’s goes old-school with only vanilla extract and ground vanilla beans, while Blue Bell uses both natural and artificial vanilla flavor. And yes, you’ll pay far more for Alden’s because of its sourced flavors and organic ingredients.
These brands tout themselves as being all-natural, nothing artificial, and healthy. And they charge much more for the good feeling they give the consumer. I would know: I’ve bought many of these brands, Alden’s included, over the years.
Fact #6: Natural Flavors are Safe (as Any Other Food Additive, Anyway)
According to a Healthline article, both natural and artificial flavors must undergo evaluation by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) to see if they meet safety standards. FEMA reports to the FDA.
If a flavor of any kind meets safety criteria, it gets added to the “Generally Recognized as Safe” list and receives approval to use in food products.
However, FEMA does not share safety data, and ingredient lists do not have to disclose the source of their “natural flavors.” That latter thing is important, as those with allergies or sensitivities may have adverse reactions to natural flavorings in foods because they don’t know the source of the flavor.
Using caution with flavors may prove easier when dealing with specific natural flavors like vanilla. It gets more complicated with complex natural flavors, like the kind found in meat products such as sausage, where the ingredient list says “natural flavors” and we have no clue where the flavor came from.
When I searched the scientific literature for articles on safety of natural or artificial flavors, I didn’t find much. Most seemed to focus on the misuse of “natural” to put consumers at ease.
One book reference did go into more detail on the safety aspect, focusing primarily on the methods used to establish the safety of artificial flavors. The authors admitted that these procedures are a work in progress and that debates exists about these methods. However, the article gave no cause for concern.
As Healthline put it, natural flavors are highly processed and they recommend avoiding them as much as possible by choosing fresh, whole foods.
Not bad advice, and advice I try to live by most of the time.
BOTTOM LINE ON NATURAL FLAVOR
- Chemically, little to no difference exists between natural and artificial flavors, other than the source they originally derive from before processing in the lab.
- The word “natural” sounds far better than “artificial,” but natural flavors appear to have no health benefit over artificial flavors.
- You’ll pay more for products that use natural flavoring.
- Natural (and artificial) flavors appear safe for consumption, according to the FDA.
- However, all flavorings undergo a lot of processing, and the healthy option may be to limit foods with flavoring and eat whole foods like meat, veggies, fruit, and grains.
- Personally, I classify flavored foods as “treats,” something to have now and again but not included in my daily diet.
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