How Natural Are ‘Natural Flavors’?

By now you probably know that one of the best things you can do for your health is to consume a balanced, nutrient-dense and minimally processed diet.  Most people would dub this way of eating as natural, but in today’s world, what does natural really mean?

When seen on ingredient lists, the word natural or natural flavoring can have a strong, positive connotation but this health halo may have some unknown implications.  Often seen on the labels of healthy snacks and beverages, natural flavor is defined by the FDA as “substances derived from animals or plants” whereas artificial flavors are synthesized in a lab. The FDA provides an in depth definition of natural flavor or natural flavoring what states that:

The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means 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, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. Natural flavors, include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants listed in subpart A of part 582 of this chapter, and the substances listed in 172.510 of this chapter.

Does this make natural flavoring better than artificial flavoring? Not necessarily.

According to the Environmental Working Group some natural flavors can actually contain synthetic chemicals. Interestingly enough, the chemical structures of certain artificial flavors and natural flavors may be identical in their composition. The primary issue is that there is not a well-defined production method used for these ‘natural flavors’. Contrary to the United States, the European Union states that the source material “must be produced by a traditional food preparation process that is approved”. The risk of not specifying the production method is that a flavor derived from nature can be destroyed and manipulated to the point of artificial chemical structure.

The Top 3 Concerns with Natural Flavor Ingredients:

  1. Legally they can contain naturally occurring byproducts, namely MSG, which is a byproduct of glutamate.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has identified MSG on their list of food additives that some people should avoid. MSG is a recognized excitotoxin, which is a class of amino acids that can over stimulate neurons as well as taste buds. This feature may be particularly enticing to the food industry at large because it keeps you coming back for more. A 2011 interview with two flavorists revealed that one of their goals is to actually make certain foods more addictive. From their perspective, the more that you eat, the better.

There’s some research that shows people who are sensitive to large amounts of MSG and consume large quantities may acquire headaches, nausea, weakness, obesity, migraines, and difficulty breathing. People who are reacting to MSG should be especially cautious of hidden forms such as natural flavors.

      2. Natural Flavors are Risky for Restrictive Diets

For those who are following very specific diets or who have uncommon food allergies, it’s hard to know what is actually in the ‘natural flavors’ that are listed in the ingredient list of many products. This can be very risky for those with serious reactions to certain foods that may be hidden.

    3. Natural Flavors Can Contain Synthetic Chemicals and Preservatives

The Environmental Working Group states that it is possible for flavor extracts and ingredients to include genetically engineered crops or the preservative BHA. This is due to the FDA not having strict criteria for ‘natural flavors’. The exception is a product that is certified organic and uses organic natural flavors.

At the end of the day, consumers just want transparency. They want to know what is in the food that they are putting into their bodies. This does not mean that all natural flavors are inherently dangerous, but it does mean that they are not regulated very closely, which provides the opportunity for less optimal ingredients to sneak in. The message to food companies is to step up and inform customers about all of the ingredients that they are about to put into their body.

In the meantime, the best thing for consumers to do is to eat as few processed foods as possible because you won’t find natural flavors hidden in a head of lettuce or a pint of blueberries. At the same time, consumers have a responsibility to continue demanding high quality food ingredients because sometimes processed foods like protein bars and seltzer water seem necessary. You can always call food companies and ask specifically for each of the ingredients and their derivatives to determine if it’s worth consuming.

Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, LD is a functional medicine dietitian nutritionist at the first hospital-based functional medicine center in the country and an adjunct instructor in Cleveland, OH. Brigid is a published author of dozens of articles for U.S. News and World Report, the Huffington Post, Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials, and ivillage. When she’s not working she’s usually in her kitchen experimenting with and photographing new recipes for her blog, She is completely in her element when she is cooking in the kitchen, practicing yoga, listening to her favorite country artists and relaxing with family and friends.

Contributor: Madeline McDonough 

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