The words "natural flavor," "natural flavors," and "natural flavoring" are among the most confusing you will find on food labels. Yet on the surface they would seem to be self-explanatory: natural is, well, not artificial or fake, right? The truth is, it's not that simple, especially when it comes to natural flavors. Here's the scoop.
What is natural flavor?
First of all, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the task of defining and applying the use of the terms, so that is our starting point. The FDA defines "natural flavor" or "natural flavoring as "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."
Therefore, sweeteners are not natural flavors because their primary purpose is nutritional and so they must be listed on a product's ingredient panel. Similarly, artificial colors and preservatives are used to boost or enhance the appearance of food or help prevent it from spoiling, so they are not natural flavors as well.
MSG and protein hydrolysates (e.g., hydrolyzed soy protein, autolyzed yeast extract) are flavor enhancers, but they are a special case because of their high glutamate content (think MSG). Although the Code of Federal Regulations shows them as natural flavors, food manufacturers are required to list them and their source on the ingredients labels.
How natural are natural flavors?
People tend to have different definitions of what "natural" means to them. When we are talking about natural flavors, consider the following.
- Natural flavorings are typically prepared in a laboratory by individuals who identify the chemical factors in foods that give them their taste. These experts then isolate the chemicals that do the job so they can be added to the target food item. Hundreds of different compounds can be involved in a simple natural flavor such as cherry or vanilla or tomato.
- It's very possible a natural flavor is not really what it seems to be. For example, raspberry flavor can come from orris root and a flavor chemical derived from chicken can be used to flavor a beef product. In addition, it is possible for a food that seems to be vegetarian or vegan to have natural flavors that come from animals, such as beef flavoring in fast food French fries.
- Any of the plants or animals mentioned in the FDA definition could have been grown with or subjected to any number of hazardous and artificial ingredients, such as pesticides and herbicides. However, an exception are organic compliant natural flavors, which are discussed below.
- Food manufacturers are not required by the FDA to tell you what is in their natural flavor formulas. That doesn't mean you can't contact the company and ask, but you may be told it is proprietary information.
- If you want true natural flavor, avoid processed foods and stick to the real food-whole fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds, beans, nuts, and legumes. Choose organic whenever possible. You can't get any closer to natural flavoring than this!
How are natural flavorings made?
If a food item contains natural almond flavoring or natural beef flavoring, don't the producers put in almonds or beef? As I already mentioned under "How Natural are Natural Flavors?" it's not that simple.
In reality, someone in a laboratory extracts or distills certain chemical compounds from the fruits, nuts, and from beef to get the natural flavoring. In the case of almonds, the main natural flavor factor in the nut is benzaldehyde. You may be interested to know that when a product contains artificial almond flavoring, it likely contains synthesized benzaldehyde. It is much less expensive to make benzaldehyde in a laboratory than to get it out of massive amounts of nuts. Since profit is a primary factor in food manufacturing, you can see why artificial flavors are so widely used.
What about organic compliant natural flavors?
Another category of natural flavors is organic compliant. Any certified organic products that contain natural flavors or flavorings are required to use organic compliant natural flavors. That means they cannot contain or be exposed to any synthetic or toxic substances, including genetically modified organisms, MSG, and artificial preservatives.
Organic compliant natural flavors are as purely organic as you can get at this time. The US Department of Agriculture allows the makers of certified organic foods and other products to use organic-compliant natural flavors because organic versions are not commonly available.
Should you worry about vanilla and castoreum?
You have probably heard that natural vanilla flavor can be sourced from the anal secretions of the scent glands of beavers. Although it is true that our furry friends are cruelly called upon to give up these fluids, the resulting castoreum is extremely expensive and primarily used in the making of perfumes.
In fact, according to a Time article, the Fenaroli's Handbook of Flavor Ingredients (2005) notes that the consumption of castoreum extract and liquid was about 250 pounds per year. Therefore, the chances of beaver secretions making their way to your vanilla-flavored foods is highly unlikely.
The best natural flavors come from whole, unprocessed foods themselves! The next best option is to choose organic foods, which must use organic compliant natural flavors. Otherwise, read labels carefully and see if the ingredient list shows the specific source of any flavoring, such as "flavored with apple juice" or "organic cinnamon flavor." If the wording is "natural flavor" or "natural flavoring" and there is no explanation, you may want to contact the producer and ask about the ingredients.
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