Look on the ingredients label of almost any packaged food, and you’re bound to come across the ubiquitous phrase “natural flavors.” It sounds innocent enough, and it might bring to mind drops of fresh lemon juice, crushed berries, or even some infused hibiscus tea. It’s natural, after all!
But whether you’re concerned about potential allergens or you’re just plain curious about what you’re eating, you might be surprised at what you discover when you dig a little deeper into what “natural flavors” really means. Are they really natural? Where do they come from? Are natural flavors healthy? And why won’t food companies get a little more specific about the natural flavors they’re using in their products?
“Natural flavors are way more confusing than most people think. The assumption may be that they are simple ingredients direct from nature, when in fact they are often chemically altered,” says Dana Angelo White, a registered dietitian in Fairfield, Connecticut. “In many cases, they are derived from substances that in no way resemble the food flavor they represent—meaning the natural flavor that gives something a strawberry-like taste may contain no actual strawberry.”
There are probably more questions than answers when it comes to these mysterious ingredients, but learning about how natural flavors differ from artificial flavors, what impact they might have on our health, and what regulations the government has placed on labeling them can help us make informed choices at the grocery store. Here’s what you need to know about natural flavors.
What are natural flavors?
As White mentioned, there’s a chance that a natural flavor contains none of the original ingredient it’s trying to mimic. So what exactly are they?
“According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), natural flavoring can come from an altered version (or versions) of a spice, fruit, fruit juice, vegetable, vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, root, bud, root, leaf, or plant material, as well as meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, or dairy,” says White.
Flavorists manipulate these ingredients in labs through processes like distilling, roasting, fermenting, and heating in order to turn them into flavoring agents for food.
Natural flavors can also contain one or more chemicals to give a product a specific taste. To get a natural flavor that resembles passion fruit, for example, flavorists may actually use the sulfur-containing volatiles from grapefruit—a less expensive, more widely available fruit. The flavorist might then blend in notes from other ingredients, such as cherries, to create a more passion fruit–like taste.
So why do food manufacturers go through all that trouble, instead of just putting real passion fruit into the product?
“Natural flavors are appealing to food manufacturers because they add flavor without changing the nutritional composition of the food. They can also enhance the aroma and flavor of processed foods, which may make them more desirable,” explains White.
How does the FDA regulate natural flavors?
Whenever you’re talking about ingredients, it’s critical to look at regulations from the FDA. The governing body controls the legal definitions of terms like “natural flavors,” “organic,” and other common terms.
As long as the original source of a chemical was a plant or animal product, it can typically be called a “natural flavor,” according to the FDA. Natural flavors also have close cousins, known as artificial flavors—a term that has its own strict definition.
“Artificial flavors do not need to be derived from plant or animal materials,” says White. “In many cases, natural flavors are more expensive.”
Artificial and natural flavors both contain chemicals. Surprisingly, natural flavors often come from obscure sources that are harder to come by than their artificial counterparts, which has led to environmentally conscious criticisms of natural flavors, and the assertion that “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.”
Food companies are not required to disclose exactly which natural or artificial ingredients are in their products. I was surprised to see “natural flavors” on the ingredients label of an organic smoothie I was drinking at breakfast one morning, so I called the company and asked what they were made of. The representative said she didn’t have the details, and wouldn’t be able to find out for me.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if food companies worked very hard to protect their recipes,” says White. “Many flavorings are made from numerous chemicals, so it might be a difficult answer to give.”
The one thing that the representative at the smoothie company did let me know was that because the product was certified organic, all of its ingredients (including natural flavors) came from organic sources.
“According to the FDA, organic products can’t contain flavorings made with synthetic solvents, carrier systems, or preservatives. Products that are labeled as ‘made with organic ingredients’ have fewer restrictions,” says White.
How do natural flavors affect our health?
Natural flavors are in tons of packaged food products on the grocery store shelves. In fact, they’re the fourth most common nutrition label ingredient (behind salt, water, and sugar), according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which rates more than 80,000 foods.
Should we be concerned about how such a prevalent ingredient might be affecting our health?
“Natural flavors are classified as ‘GRAS,’ meaning they are ‘generally recognized as safe.’ But I’m not aware of any testing done on these products when consumed for the long term or when eaten in combination with others. There are so many flavorings, and millions of possible combinations,” says White.
The EWG says that high doses of the chemicals used in natural flavors might actually be toxic, but because natural flavors are so potent, food manufacturers only need to use a very small quantity in each product to make a big impact on our senses.
Most healthy adults can tolerate the amount of natural flavors we typically consume without a known impact on health. However, people with severe allergies to specific ingredients will need to do their homework (or avoid natural flavors altogether) to ensure every product is safe for them to eat. The top eight major allergens, like soy and eggs, are specifically mentioned on labels of products that contain traces of them. But if you have a less common food allergy or you’re sticking to a strictly vegan or vegetarian diet, you’ll need to call the company to see if the natural flavors used in a particular product might contain something you’re trying to avoid.
Food Swaps if You Want to Avoid Natural Flavors
Even though there’s no official data about the long-term health impact of natural flavors, some people are dedicated to avoiding the consumption of vague ingredients. Fortunately, brands are starting to offer some favorite foods that are free of natural flavors.
“I love products that use real ingredients for flavor,” says White. “Spindrift is a perfect example. It uses real fruit and tea to enhance sparking water. It represents what natural flavors should mean.”
LARABAR is a reliable brand for granola bars without natural flavors—great for a morning meal on the go, says White.
For snacks, White has recommendations for treats that are free from natural flavors.
“Instead of packs of chewy fruit snacks, choose dried fruit. It’s naturally sweet and needs no additives. Trader Joe’s has a great selection,” she says. “Skip processed salty snacks and reach for air-popped popcorn. Angie’s Boom Chicka Pop Sea Salt is my favorite—the ingredients are simple and clean.”
Got a sweet tooth? Pass on the commercially baked goods you find at convenience stores and instead bake something from scratch at home, says White. Your local bakery might also have cupcakes, pastries, and cookies that don’t contain natural flavors—just call and ask.
Knowledge is power when it comes to building a healthy, balanced diet. The more you know about natural flavors—and all the other ingredients on your foods’ labels—the more confident you can be in your choices at the grocery store.