You’ve seen them advertised on the boxes of some of your favorite foods, but what are “natural flavors,” and are they good for you?
To get some answers to these important questions about natural flavors, we talked to registered dietician and certified diabetes care and education specialist Amy Kimberlain. She provides some useful insight into how to read nutrition labels to uncover what different brands mean when they list “natural flavors” in their ingredients.
What does the “natural” in natural flavors mean?
The answer to this question is not as straightforward as you would think. According to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), the phrase “natural flavor” refers to “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating, or enzymolysis.”
The tricky thing is that there is no clear definition of what, exactly, the phrase “natural flavor” means or what type of extraction process will result in natural flavoring. This can make food labels seem misleading. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never formally defined natural foods, which leaves its meaning open to interpretation for food manufacturers and consumers.
Kimberlain advises consumers to decide which ingredients and treatment processes are most important to them, then read labels and look up brands to determine how those brands define the word “natural.”
In other words, natural flavors are created from substances extracted from food sources using chemical processes. The food sources can include:
● Root leaves
● Plant material
● Fruit (or fruit juice)
● Meat, poultry, or seafood
● Vegetables (or vegetable juice)
● Dairy products (including fermented dairy products)
How can natural flavors still be considered processed?
The terms “natural” and “processed” seem like opposites. But even though they come from plant and animal sources, natural flavors are processed in laboratories. While people commonly associate natural flavors with natural foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, the way we get natural flavors is more similar to the chemical processes used to create synthetic flavors and additives.
That’s because natural flavors are created in labs by specialists called flavorists. These food chemists carefully extract flavors from natural sources. They use different edible ingredients and natural chemicals to create natural flavors. Food manufacturers do not need to disclose the chemical processes they use to create natural flavors, so it’s impossible to know precisely what makes up the natural flavors in your favorite ice cream or club soda drink.
Some processes of natural flavor extraction can be perfectly harmless. The problem is that there isn’t a standardized method for natural flavor extraction, which can lead to problems for some people. Individuals with severe food allergies, for example, may have allergic reactions to natural flavors because of the processes used to extract them.
A trade group called the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) is responsible for overseeing the safety of natural flavor and additive flavors. However, it has come under scrutiny because of its opaque practices that are not readily transparent.
Why do brands use natural flavors in their products?
If complex chemical processes are necessary to create natural flavors, why do brands bother?
The answer is simple—so we buy their products.
The main reason to use natural flavors is to improve the taste of food. Natural flavors can help foods taste fresher or like something the product doesn’t actually contain. Candy is an excellent example of a food that uses natural flavors to taste like fruit, even though there is no trace of the actual food product.
Kimberlain also notes that there are cases when the original flavor might be too expensive to get. Passion fruit is an example of a fruit that is too expensive for brands to replicate using the real thing. Creating a natural flavor using a chemical process can be the most cost-effective way to introduce passion fruit taste to the market.
So, are natural flavors healthy to eat?
This is the big question many of us have regarding natural flavors—are they healthy for me to include in my diet?
Kimberlain tells us that natural flavors are deemed safe to consume because the FDA determines whether natural or artificial flavors are safe for consumption. However, she cautions that “just because something is listed with ‘natural flavors’ on the ingredient list doesn’t necessarily mean that the actual food product is healthier than foods made with artificial flavors or no flavors at all.”
The answer to the question, then, is that, while natural flavors are safe to consume, they are not always healthy, or, at least, they are not always the healthier or the most nutritious option. As consumers, we need to be hyper-aware of what’s in the ingredient list to decide whether or not the added natural flavor is beneficial.
The best way to get natural foods into your diet is to eat whole foods. Don’t be fooled by the natural flavor label because this does not mean there is anything natural about the food you are about to enjoy. Kimberlain advises consumers to read ingredient labels and choose foods that have whole foods listed as the first three ingredients. Nutrition labels will list ingredients by quantity, so the first three ingredients are the ones that make up the bulk of the food.
She also advises consumers to keep in mind that companies are trying to market their foods to us using healthy-sounding words, like natural flavor, organic, gluten-free, and more. The best way to know what you’re eating is to read the ingredient list and choose whole foods over packaged or processed foods.