How “Natural” Are Natural Flavors?


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Turns out, “natural” flavoring is about as natural as artificial flavors, which is to say: filled with chemicals and other sh!t no one has to tell you about. Keep reading for more.

The term “natural” has been a huge buzzword in the food industry in recent years. When people hear the word “natural,” they equate it to mean organic, healthy, good for you. But, when it really comes down to it, what in the heck does “natural” really mean? If the term means organic, why are some foods labeled as such, while others use “natural”? And “natural” as opposed to what? Supernatural? Unnatural; artificial? Filled with things that come from nature, as opposed to man-made chemicals?

I hate to be the one that breaks it to you, but...realistically, almost everything can be classified as natural; the word means little more than marketing clout. See, “natural flavors” aren’t as good for you, healthy or - erm, natural - as you think.

What defines a natural versus artificial flavor?

Let’s take a step back for a second. Government regulations define “natural flavors” as those made up of aroma or flavor chemicals derived from plant/animal sources. This includes things like fruit, meat, fish, spices, herbs, roots, leaves, buds and bark. These chemicals are then distilled, fermented or otherwise manipulated in a lab to produce flavoring.

On the other hand, artificial flavors are made up of man-made chemicals that produce a particular flavor or aroma.

At first glance, the difference between natural and artificial flavors sounds pretty clear cut. However, when you get into things, there’s actually very little difference between natural and artificial flavors in nonorganic foods.

What’s the difference between natural and artificial flavors?

The government regulations mentioned above don’t restrict dozens ingredients, like preservatives and solvents, that can go into all those “natural” flavors. A wide variety of ingredients typically go into “natural” flavorings, rendering them extremely similar to artificial flavors when all is said and done.

Food processors are required to list all of their ingredients on the label. However, flavor manufacturers don’t have to disclose a list of ingredients; thus, you will never actually know what’s in the “natural” flavors listed on an ingredient label. Manufacturers can add all sorts of things in these, such as synthetic solvents, preservatives, emulsifiers, carriers and other additives. These all qualify as “natural” under the current regulations for nonorganic foods.

Does this apply to organic foods, too?

However, when it comes to certified organic foods, the natural flavors allowed in these look much different. These flavors are subjected to a more rigorous and restrictive set of regulations. For example, natural flavors in organic foods can’t contain a long list of ingredients, including synthetic solvents, carriers and emulsifiers or artificial preservatives. They have to use non-petroleum-based solvents, cannot be irradiated and cannot use flavor extracts derived from genetically engineered crops.

And flavors labeled as “organic” or “organic natural” are even more strictly regulated, consisting of almost entirely organic ingredients, although the latter could also contain a small amount of natural flavor.

What about those with food allergies?

If you have a food allergy or strict dietary restrictions, steer clear of food flavorings simply because the ingredients are not disclosed on the label. There’s no way to tell exactly what’s in there. Avoiding added flavorings is really hard, though, since many food manufacturers add “natural” flavors to a lot of really basic items. I’m talking about things like cold cereals, flavored yogurts, canned soup, spaghetti and apple sauces and even ice creams. And of course, you can always find natural flavors in highly processed foods like candy, granola bars and frozen dinners.

Next time you see the phrase “natural flavors” on a food label, ask yourself: what does “natural” really mean? Don’t be fooled by marketing lingo, everything is not always what it seems.

Now, when we say natural, we really mean natural! We’re talking three ingredients: pecans, maple syrup and sea salt. That’s it.

Eliza Hunt