According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “natural flavors” is one of the most common ingredients listed on food labels—only surpassed by salt, water, and sugar.
So if you pay any mind to the labels on the food you buy, you’re probably familiar with the term—but what does it actually mean?
The answer isn’t quite as straightforward as you might have thought.
While it would seem intuitive that “natural flavors” are precisely the opposite of “artificial flavors,” the reality is that the two have more similarities than differences.
According to David Andrews, senior scientist at EWG, “The differentiation is really down to the origin of those molecules, whether synthetically produced in a lab or purified in a lab but from a natural source.”
“Most often, as far as I could find, the actual chemicals themselves could be identical or extremely close in terms of natural versus artificial,” he told CNN.
There’s still more to it than that, though.
A given flavor, whether natural or artificial, can contain anywhere from 50 to 100 different ingredients, and they’re not all as healthful—or as natural—as you might have hoped.
“The mixture will often have some solvent and preservatives—and that makes up 80 to 90 percent of the volume,” said Andrews. “In the end product, it’s a small amount, but it still has artificial ingredients.”
According to Andrews, the solvents and preservatives in natural flavors are present in such small amounts that there’s no real risk of adverse health effects directly from them.
They do present a less obvious problem, however.
“Natural and artificial flavors play an interesting role in food. They’re essentially providing the taste and often they’re added to make the food more appealing, or to potentially replace something that’s lost through processing, storage or in some cases even from pasteurizing,” Andrews says.
“One concern we have is the ability to make things more appealing than they may necessarily be,” he continued. “You can make [foods that aren’t as healthy] more appealing or even taste as if they’re extremely fresh when they may not be.”
Ultimately, Andrews says, the purpose of these additives “is to make a short intense flavor that quickly dissipates so you come back for more.”
Basically, if you consume them on a regular basis, foods containing these additives can play tricks on your body.
Because of this, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Vandana Sheth believes that added flavors—both natural and artificial—can cause increases in food cravings for some, much in the same way that artificial sweeteners can distort our body’s sense of caloric intake based on sweetness.
“As a consumer, it is important to be savvy about ingredients,” Sheth said. “Recognize that any food consumed in excess of your needs is going to affect your weight loss journey.”
Overall, the takeaway seems to be this: Although you don’t need to eliminate all natural (or even artificial) flavors from your diet until the end of time, you’re better off sticking with whole, unprocessed foods as much as you can.