Like Nature Intended

‘”Natural” flavors are often anything but.

The term “natural flavors” sounds innocuous. Spot the phrase on the ingredients list on a box of raspberry fruit bars and you might imagine something along the lines of raspberry concentrate, or perhaps a puree. Unfortunately, that’s not likely to be correct. “Natural flavors” is simply a catch-all term that can hide dozens of ingredients, and they aren’t necessarily different from artificial additives.

What’s the difference between natural and artificial flavors?

The term “natural” implies that a substance is close to the state in which it’s found in nature – an oil, juice, puree or other type of extract from a whole food source like fruit. But, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the kinds of substances suggested by the term “natural flavors” can’t be listed as flavorings at all. If a flavorful ingredient included in a food product has any nutritional value, it’s going to be listed by name on the label.

To create natural flavors, food scientists, called flavorists, distill flavors from whole foods and then combine them with chemical compounds which act as a carrier and make them more potent and shelf-stable. Artificial flavors, on the other hand, are entirely chemically-derived. Both types of flavoring are manufactured in a laboratory.

What exactly is in natural flavors?

According to the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, a natural flavoring is defined as:

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 any other edible portions of a plant, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose primary function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

Any substance that’s approved for use in food and originally came from a natural source can be listed under natural flavors. The term is opaque, and doesn’t give consumers much of a clue in knowing where the natural flavors may have come from. Sometimes, the flavors that are actually present can be far from what you’d expect. One common ingredient, known as castoreum, is often used to enhance raspberry and vanilla flavors. Castoreum is made from the anal secretions of beavers. There’s no telling how food scientists came upon that discovery; flavor chemistry is apparently a complicated science.

Why are food companies not forced to disclose the contents of their natural flavors?

Call up a food company and ask them what’s actually in their natural flavors, and chances are, they won’t be willing to tell you.

Food manufacturers have to disclose potential allergens in their products on the labels, including the ingredients in “natural flavors.” They are also required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to identify flavorings that are technically meat or dairy products, like “dried broth” or “meat extracts” (though this does not apply to all animal-sourced flavorings, like castoreum.)

Flavor chemistry is “a pretty secretive industry,” according to a recent article in the New Jersey Monthly. Flavorists are often contractually bound to not speak about their work. The term “natural flavors” disguises the trade secrets of food companies. Given this cloak of secrecy, they can ostensibly maintain secret recipes to protect themselves against copycat competitors, would-be Doritos Ranch knock-offs and Coca-Cola wannabes.

Are natural flavors safe?

Some food experts claim that natural flavors are actually less safe than artificial flavors.

“Artificial flavorings are simpler in composition and potentially safer because only safety-tested components are utilized,” says Gary Reineccius, a professor in the department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota.

Besides, a chemical is a chemical.

“Another difference between natural and artificial flavorings is cost. The search for ‘natural’ sources of chemicals often requires that a manufacturer go to great lengths to obtain a given chemical. …Furthermore, the process is costly,” explains Reineccius. “This pure, natural chemical is identical to the version made in an organic chemist’s laboratory, yet it is much more expensive than the synthetic alternative. Consumers pay a lot for natural flavorings. But these are in fact no better in quality, nor are they safer, than their cost-effective artificial counterparts.”

Debates about artificial versus natural flavorings aside, the most troubling issue for many is the lack of transparency about what’s in our food. Catch-all terms like natural flavors put consumers at the mercy of manufacturers, reducing the buyer’s ability to make informed purchases.

There’s one very effective way to avoid questionable flavorings: cut back on processed foods. Natural flavors are added to foods because processing wrings out the real, original flavors and leaves the final product bland, though shelf-stable.

Image: pink sherbet photography

Stephanie Rogers

Stephanie Rogers currently resides in North Carolina where she covers a variety of green topics, from sustainability to food.