Natural flavors are food additives that enhance the taste of lightly, moderately, and highly processed foods or beverages. They’re present in all sorts of convenience foods — even organic ones. Unfortunately, natural flavors are loosely defined by the FDA and are not as righteous as they sound. Keep reading to learn more about natural flavors, why they’re not necessarily better than artificial flavors, and how you can avoid them.
How Does the FDA Define “Natural Flavors”?
It’s not what you’d expect. The FDA’s definition of natural flavors is:
“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 similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof.” (Source)
Did you notice how they specified that the “naturally derived” part only applies to the flavoring component of the natural flavor mixture? That’s because natural flavors are actually compounds made up of dozens (or more) of ingredients, including flavor components, carriers (to dilute flavors and make them usable), solvents (to dissolve the flavors), emulsifiers (to help all the ingredients mix), preservatives (to improve shelf life), and more. (Source, Source)
Natural flavors are lab-made and are not closely related to their authentic food counterparts. They aren’t just spices, herbs, floral extracts, and fruit juices — and natural flavors aren’t created with your wellness in mind.
Where Will I Find Natural Flavors?
It may be easier to list the places you won’t find natural flavors. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), whose aim is to highlight harmful agricultural and industry loopholes that may impact consumers’ health, natural flavor is the fourth most common food ingredient in the 80,000 foods to which they’ve assigned an EWG Food Score. Salt, water, and sugar are the only elements more common than natural flavor. (Source)
You’ll find natural flavors in everything from snack foods and TV dinners to organic teas and yogurt. They’re in the majority of processed foods and beverages.
Some food manufacturers use natural flavoring as a selling point, highlighting it on the label to convince consumers that their product is superior to a comparable product with artificial flavoring. Others just slip it into a lengthy ingredients list where consumers might not notice it. Regardless, if your food products come in a container, box, bag, can, or bottle, they likely contain natural or artificial flavor. We will touch on why the two aren’t so different later in this article.
Why Do Food Manufacturers Use Natural Flavors?
There are many reasons manufacturers choose natural flavors over real, whole, fresh foods, or even artificial flavors.
Natural Flavors Are More Flavorful Than Real Ingredients
Natural flavors take up less space in the product. For example, one teaspoon of natural berry flavoring is much more flavorful than one teaspoon of dried berries. Consumers don’t appreciate paying for a convenience food that’s bland, and a delicious product means happy consumers, good reviews, and repeat purchases.
Natural Flavors Are Less Costly Than Real Ingredients
Natural flavors are significantly less costly to produce because they’re made in bulk, and they’re more effective in smaller amounts. Once flavor producers have developed a great flavor, it’s easy to produce large quantities. A pint of strawberry flavoring will go much further than a pint of strawberries, costing food manufacturers a lot less.
Natural Flavors Have a Better Shelf Life Than Real Ingredients
Real ingredients are perishable. Natural flavors contain preservatives and stabilizers that aren’t found in whole foods. They last a long time, allowing manufacturers to produce them in bulk, and the retail products can stay on shelves longer. Spoiled products are lost profits.
Natural Flavors Are More Versatile Than Real Ingredients
A company that produces cookies, ice cream, fruit juice, candy, and cereal can use the same natural flavor compound for all those products. Flavoring foods with real ingredients complicates the manufacturing process. Food producers can enhance flavor in teas using real fruit juice, but they can’t add that fruit juice to a snack bar.
Natural Flavors Are More Consistent Than Real Ingredients
Flavors in real ingredients are unpredictable and highly variable. Once a food manufacturer finds a natural flavor that meets their needs, flavor manufacturers make sure they get the same quality flavor every time they repurchase. Have you ever eaten a lousy blueberry or bitten into an apple that’s not quite ripe? One bad ingredient could mean enormous losses for food manufacturers, who aren’t willing to risk it.
Natural Flavors Are More Appealing Than Artificial Flavors
“Natural” sounds better. A health-conscious consumer will usually prefer a food labeled “natural” over one labeled “artificial.” That said, the word “natural” in this context is somewhat misleading.
What’s the Difference Between Natural and Artificial Flavors?
Artificial flavors are made with synthetic ingredients. Artificial flavors are virtually limitless — if something has a distinct taste or smell, scientists can closely match that smell by combining synthetic ingredients. Artificial flavoring costs less to produce than natural flavoring. One flavor, vanillin (which is responsible for the vanilla flavor we’re all familiar with), is very costly and time-consuming to produce naturally. As a result, you’re much more likely to find synthetic than natural vanillin in your favorite vanilla-flavored products. (Source)
Artificial “X” Flavors
Where “x” is the product’s lead flavor – strawberry, vanilla, chocolate, and so on.
These aren’t really different from artificial flavors. In some cases, if a particular flavor is highlighted on the front of the carton or container, the ingredient list will also set that flavor apart.
Natural flavors, like artificial ones, are produced in a lab. While the flavor component is derived from natural sources (plants or animals), that flavor component is nearly negligible in the overall flavor concoction. Around 80%–90% of the flavor mixture comprises heavily processed or synthetic chemical additives, such as preservatives and emulsifiers. The FDA doesn’t require manufacturers to disclose the ingredients that make up natural flavors. Listing “natural flavors” on an ingredient list can be a convenient way to disguise ingredients, such as propylene glycol, that you may be wary of if listed overtly on the label. (Source)
Natural “X” Flavors
The term “natural ‘x’ flavors” isn’t used in the same way food manufacturers use “artificial ‘x’ flavors.” When they use “natural ‘x’ flavors,” food companies are letting consumers know that they used “x” to produce the “natural ‘x’ flavor.” For example, the flavor component of “natural strawberry flavor” is derived from strawberries. In comparison, the “natural flavor” in a strawberry-flavored product may be castoreum derived from another natural source — a beaver’s anal glands. (If the thought of a beaver’s anal secretions in your strawberry dessert made you squeamish, rest assured that castoreum is costly to produce and isn’t widely used anymore.) (Source)
Natural Flavors in Organic Products
Knowing what you do now about natural flavors, you’re likely wondering if natural flavors in organic products are, well, natural. A natural flavor compound in an organic product is not organic. Still, it’s compliant with stricter regulations — most notably, it can’t contain synthetic preservatives, emulsifiers, or additives, so natural flavors in organic foods are “cleaner” than those in conventional foods. Essentially, natural flavors in organic foods are what most people believe natural flavors in general are; all-natural (but not organic). (Source)
Organic Natural Flavors
Organic natural flavors are “cleaner” than natural flavors in organic products. They adhere to the same strict regulations and contain no synthetic components, but unlike natural flavors in organic products, they’re derived from organic sources. (Source)
Natural or Organic Essences
Natural and organic essences are top tier if you’re cautious about what you’re putting into your body. Professionals harvest the essences using non-chemical processes, and they contain just one ingredient: the essence itself. Essences are most commonly found in flavored waters.
Like natural essences, extracts are created by isolating the flavor of a natural food, such as lemons or vanilla. They’re cleaner than natural or artificial flavors but often contain ethyl alcohol. Ethyl alcohol is considered safe in the amounts typically consumed for flavor purposes, but it’s essential to be informed and make your own choices about what’s right for you.
Are Natural Flavors Better Than Artificial Flavors?
Unfortunately, natural flavors aren’t usually healthier or better for you than artificial ones. While the flavor component of natural flavors is naturally derived, that only makes the natural flavor mixture about 10%–20% more natural than an artificial one. In addition, for some flavors such as the butter flavor used in cooking sprays and popcorn, the natural flavor and its artificial counterpart are chemically identical. In some cases, deriving a natural flavor demands so much chemical processing that a natural flavor might be even less healthy than an artificial one (depending on the chemicals used for processing). (Source)
Can Natural Flavors Trigger Autoimmune Responses?
Your gut microbiome is a delicate ecosystem connected with immune system function and inflammatory diseases. Research shows that many emulsifiers, including those used in natural flavors, can harm the gut microbiome and promote intestinal inflammation. In addition, both emulsifiers and solvents have been linked to negative changes in intestinal permeability — a factor associated with many autoimmune diseases. (Source, Source)
Natural flavors can contain a range of allergens and autoimmune triggers. If a natural flavor includes a big eight allergen (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, or soybeans), you’ll see a warning note on the label. Unfortunately, flavor manufacturers won’t disclose other allergens and triggers, so you’ll need to be cautious. Suppose you have a nightshade intolerance, for example. In that case, there’s no way to know that the natural flavor in a product you’re buying doesn’t contain capsaicin, an alkaloid found in some nightshades. (Source, Source)
Should I Avoid Natural Flavors?
It’s a personal choice, but we vote “yes!” to avoiding natural flavors for a number of reasons.
Top Reasons to Avoid Natural Flavors
- They can contain allergens and autoimmune triggers. Unless it’s a big eight allergen, flavor manufacturers aren’t required to disclose their products’ potential allergens or triggers.
- They can mask some ingredients that you’d avoid if they were listed openly in the ingredients list. The term “natural flavors” can hide heavily-processed and synthetic solvents, emulsifiers, and preservatives.
- They’re designed to get you hooked. Grape juice with natural flavors and whole grapes taste totally different. Whole grapes will not satisfy the craving for a tall glass of grape juice. That’s intentional. Food manufacturers want to keep you coming back for more.
- They let food companies boost prices, and for no good reason. A “Made with natural flavors!” line on a food label shouldn’t justify a higher price tag, but in the grocery store world, it does. Consumers perceive foods and beverages as higher quality if the word “natural” is anywhere on the label, and they’re willing to pay more for a word that, as you know, doesn’t mean much.
- They’re found in processed foods. Whole, natural foods don’t contain additives. If you’re checking an ingredients list for “natural flavors,” the product is a processed food that you should likely consider limiting, regardless of your thoughts on natural flavors, as processed foods are linked to leaky gut and autoimmune conditions.
How Do I Avoid Natural Flavors?
Avoiding natural flavors can seem daunting, but you can make it happen with practice and preparation. Remember — while cutting natural flavors entirely is ideal, simply limiting them can positively affect your wellness.
- Snack on real foods instead of packaged snacks. If a food occurs in nature and doesn’t require human input to exist, it won’t contain natural flavors. Berries are the ultimate real convenience food for snacking. They’re an easy, no-prep option packed with anti-inflammatory compounds called anthocyanins. (Source)
- Opt for DIY smoothies and teas. Packaged smoothies and teas are among the strangest places you’ll find natural flavors. Why choose natural flavors when their real food counterparts are so delicious? Make your smoothies and teas instead of buying pre-packaged ones. Frozen fruits are nutritionally comparable to fresh, so buy frozen if you’re concerned about spoiling. If your busy lifestyle leads you to choose convenience foods, blend a smoothie using fresh or frozen ingredients, then divide the mixture into individual serving sizes and freeze them.
- Cook from scratch or with clean ingredients when you can. Preparing meals from scratch isn’t always feasible, but it will help you avoid natural flavors. If time is an issue and you can bear the thought of eating the same thing for a few days in a row, it’s typically not much more time-consuming to prepare a larger volume of food all at once. If you’d prefer to mix it up, choose recipes that freeze or bottle well.
- Choose organic. If you’re pressed for time, and prepared foods are your only option, remember that natural flavors in organic products are held to a higher standard, and organic natural flavors in organic products are even better.
- Look for essences and extracts. Both essences and extracts are much purer than natural flavors, and they’re in a range of products. If you love flavored water, for example, many are made with essences. Sometimes, you just need to swap one delicious product for another.
- Learn to love real food. In a world where we’re surrounded by foods enhanced with natural and artificial flavors, it’s easy to accept processed foods as normal. You can learn to love real food, though. There’s evidence that we crave more of the types of foods we eat regularly. People who eat mainly processed foods crave processed foods. Start taking small steps toward including more real food in your diet, and you may notice that your cravings change. (Source)
- Keep an eye out for “new and improved” or similar labels on your go-to foods. A label indicating a change in formula may also indicate the addition of natural flavors that weren’t previously present in your favorite convenience foods. If you notice one, be sure to check the ingredients list to see what’s changed.
The Bottom Line on Natural Flavors
Natural flavors are the fourth most common ingredient in manufactured foods. While the word “natural” is attractive, especially for health-conscious consumers, it isn’t always a sign of quality. The “natural” component of natural flavors is nearly negligible in the overall formulation of the natural flavor compound. Organic natural flavors are better, but essences and extracts are best. Limit natural flavors by choosing whole, natural, real foods as often as possible.