From sparkling water to yogurt to pasta sauce, “natural flavors” appears on the labels of countless packaged foods and beverages.
In fact, natural flavors are the fourth-most common ingredient listed on these labels, with only salt, water and sugar appearing more often, according to the Environmental Working Group.
But what are natural flavors, and how natural are they really?
For starters, the Food and Drug Administration defines natural flavors as substances derived from plants (fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, barks and roots) or animals (meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy) whose primary function is taste rather than nutrition. The flavor may be extracted via heating, fermentation, distillation or other processes.
“There are tiny chemicals that make up the flavors of these foods or natural substances, such as benzaldehyde, for instance,” registered dietitian Allison Baker told OpenFit.com. “Benzaldehyde is found in cheese, mushrooms and almonds, to name a few, and can be extracted from these foods and used to flavor other foods.”
Artificial flavors, on the other hand, come from non-food, synthetic sources.
“An example would be artificial vanilla flavor, whose main constituent compound is [synthetic] vanillin, as opposed to the natural vanilla that would be obtained from Madagascar, Indonesia or Mexico,” Chapman University food science professor Lilian Were told HuffPost.
Are natural flavors more healthful than artificial flavors?
Not necessarily. For one, both natural flavors and artificial flavors are created in labs by flavor chemists known as flavorists. The natural and artificial versions of the same flavor can be nearly identical in their chemical composition; the only difference is the source.
Natural flavors may still contain synthetic preservatives, emulsifiers, solvents and other “incidental additives.”
So healthwise, there’s not much of a difference between the two. Nevertheless, more companies are choosing to use natural flavors over artificial flavors — even though it’s generally more expensive and sourcing natural ingredients may raise environmental concerns.
So why do they do it? It all comes down to marketing, Charles Platkin, executive director of the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center, told NPR. Consumers prefer to see “natural flavors” on the label because they assume it means they’re buying a more healthful product. In reality, that may not be the case.
“Many of these products have health halos, and that’s what concerns me typically,” Platkin said.
So are natural flavors safe to consume?
Because processed foods and drinks contain very small amounts of flavoring, experts do not believe these ingredients pose a major health concern.
“The flavors are typically not used in high concentrations,” Were said. “And going back to the main tenet of toxicology, the ‘dose is what makes the poison.’”
That said, though the FDA requires food manufacturers to list a product’s nutritional ingredients on the label, it does not require the same for flavoring.
“Natural flavors” are listed as one ingredient on packaging, but the actual mixture can contain dozens of chemicals.
The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit journalism group, contacted flavor companies about their ingredients and safety standards for a 2015 article. Most declined to comment or ignored the request, but one company that responded said it considered its formulations “proprietary business information.”
Some groups are demanding more transparency from manufacturers as to what exactly is in their flavorings so consumers can make more informed choices.
“We have far bigger nutrition problems in this country than natural flavors.”
“If it’s not noted on the product, you may consider contacting the manufacturer to inquire whether or not the natural flavors in their product contain the particular allergen of concern,” she said.
Vegans and vegetarians who avoid animal products may run into a similar problem.
“Unless the brand or food manufacturer specifically states that the natural flavors are plant-based, there is no way of knowing for certain where they come from,” Sassos said. “The same thing applies to organic and non-GMO sources. Unless the manufacturer explicitly states that the natural flavors are organic and non-GMO, then there is no way of knowing for sure.”
But at the end of the day, Sassos said, we shouldn’t be too hung up on flavoring.
“We have far bigger nutrition problems in this country than natural flavors, especially since natural flavors are typically present in such trace amounts in foods,” she said. “I’d argue that the excessive consumption of added sugars and exorbitant amounts of sodium in processed foods are far worse. But regardless, we still just don’t know too much about natural flavors, and definitely more research is needed.”
If you want to minimize your consumption of natural or artificial flavors, Sassos recommends buying the plain versions of your favorite foods and drinks and flavoring them yourself.
“For example, if you are purchasing green tea with mint and lemon natural flavors, try buying regular unflavored green tea and adding a few sprigs of fresh mint and a slice of lemon,” she said. “Whole foods in their true form are always best and the way nature intended it.”