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Natural Flavors: Should You Eat Them?

You may have seen the term “natural flavors” on ingredients
lists. These are flavoring agents that food manufacturers add
to their products to enhance the taste.

However, this term can be pretty confusing and even misleading.

This article takes a detailed look at what natural flavors are,
how they compare to artificial flavors and potential health
concerns.

Woman in a Store Wondering About the Ingredients in a Jar of Pasta Sauce

What Are Natural Flavors?

According to the US FDA’s Code of Federal Regulations, natural
flavors are created from substances extracted from these plant
or animal sources:

  • Spices
  • Fruit or fruit juice
  • Vegetables or vegetable juice
  • Edible yeast, herbs, bark, buds, root leaves or plant
    material
  • Dairy products, including fermented products
  • Meat, poultry or seafood
  • Eggs

These flavors can be obtained by heating or roasting the animal
or plant material.

In addition, manufacturers are increasingly using enzymes to
extract flavor compounds from plant sources to help meet the
demand for natural flavors (1).

Natural flavors are meant to enhance flavor, not necessarily to
contribute nutritional value to a food or beverage.

These flavorings are extremely common in foods and beverages.

In fact, it has been reported that the only items listed more
frequently on ingredient lists of processed foods are salt,
water and sugar.

Bottom Line: Natural flavors are extracted
from plants and animals for the purpose of creating flavor
enhancers to be used in processed foods.

What Does “Natural” Actually Mean?

Research has shown that when “natural” appears on food
packaging, people tend to form positive opinions about the
product, including how healthy it is (2).

However, since the FDA hasn’t officially defined this term, it
can be used to describe almost any type of food (3).

In the case of a natural flavor, the original source must be a
plant or animal. By contrast, the original source of an
artificial flavor is a man-made chemical.

Importantly, all flavors contain chemicals, whether they are
natural or artificial. In fact, every substance in the world is
composed of chemicals, including water.

Natural flavors are complex mixtures created by specially
trained food chemists known as flavorists.

In addition to their original flavor source, these mixtures can
contain more than 100 different chemicals, including
preservatives, solvents and other substances. These are defined
as “incidental additives.”

However, food manufacturers aren’t required to disclose whether
these additives come from natural or synthetic sources. As long
as the original flavoring source comes from plant or animal
material, it is classified as a natural flavor.

What’s more, because the term “natural” has no official
definition, flavors sourced from genetically
modified crops
can also be labeled as natural (4).

Bottom Line: Even though the term “natural”
has no formal definition, people often interpret it to mean
healthy. Although natural and artificial flavors differ by
source, both contain added chemicals.

Ingredients Classified as Natural Flavors

Leaf in a Test Tube

There are hundreds of natural flavors created by food chemists.
Here are a few that are commonly found in foods and beverages:

  • Amyl acetate: This compound can be distilled
    from bananas in order to provide banana-like flavor in baked
    goods.
  • Citral: Also known as geranial, citral is
    extracted from lemongrass, lemon,
    orange and pimento. It is used in citrus-flavored beverages
    and sweets.
  • Benzaldehyde: This chemical is extracted
    from
    almonds
    , cinnamon oil and other ingredients. It is
    frequently used to give foods an almond flavor and aroma.
  • Castoreum: A somewhat surprising and
    unsettling source, this slightly sweet substance is found in
    the anal secretions of beavers. It is sometimes used as a
    substitute for vanilla, although this is rare due to its high
    cost.

Other natural flavors include:

  • Linden ether: Honey flavor
  • Massoia lactone: Coconut flavor
  • Acetoin: Butter flavor
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All of these flavors can also be produced using man-made
chemicals created in a lab, in which case they would be listed
as artificial flavors.

You may also have noticed that most of the time, ingredients
labels indicate that the food is made with natural and
artificial flavors.

Bottom Line: Hundreds of ingredients are
classified as natural flavors. Using natural and artificial
flavors together is also common.

Should You Choose Natural Flavors Over Artificial Flavors?

It may seem healthier to choose foods that contain natural
flavors and avoid those with artificial flavors.

However, in terms of chemical composition, the two are
remarkably similar. The chemicals in a particular flavor may be
naturally derived or synthetically created.

In fact, artificial flavors sometimes contain fewer
chemicals than natural flavors. In addition, some food
scientists have argued that artificial flavors are actually
safer because they are produced under tightly controlled
laboratory conditions.

Artificial flavors are also less expensive to produce, which
makes them more appealing to food manufacturers.

In addition, people who are vegetarian
or vegan
may unknowingly be ingesting animal-derived
natural flavors in processed foods.

Overall, natural flavors don’t appear to be any healthier than
artificial flavors.

Bottom Line: Despite their “natural”
origins, natural flavors are very similar to artificial
flavors. Artificial flavors may even have some advantages.

Are Natural Flavors Safe?

Ingredients List for Root Beer

Before natural or artificial flavors can be added to food, they
must be evaluated by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers
Association (FEMA) Expert Panel to confirm that they meet
safety standards (5).

Results of this evaluation are published and reported to the
FDA. If the flavoring meets safety criteria, it can be added to
the “Generally Recognized as Safe” list of substances that are
exempt from further evaluation by the FDA.

In addition, most natural flavors determined to be safe through
this program have also been reviewed by other international
regulatory organizations, such as the European Food Safety
Authority.

However, members of FEMA have also been criticized by nutrition
experts and public interest groups for not disclosing safety data about natural flavors.

In most cases, natural flavors appear safe for human
consumption when consumed occasionally in processed foods.
However, given the number of chemicals that may be part of a
natural flavor mixture, adverse reactions are always possible.

For people with food allergies or those who follow special
diets, it’s very important to investigate what substances a
natural flavoring contains.

If you have allergies and want to dine out, request ingredients
lists. Although restaurants aren’t legally required to provide
this information, many do so to attract and retain customers.

Bottom Line: Although natural flavorings
must meet safety criteria, individual reactions may occur.
People with allergies or those on special diets should be
very cautious about consuming them.

Should You Consume Natural Flavors?

The original source of natural flavors must be plant or animal
material. However, natural flavors are highly processed and
contain many chemical additives.

In fact, natural flavors aren’t much different than artificial
flavors in terms of chemical composition and health effects.

From a health and safety standpoint, your best bet is to avoid
foods with natural or artificial flavors by choosing
fresh, whole foods
whenever possible.

Food manufacturers are only required to list flavors on

ingredients lists
, without revealing the original sources
or chemical mixtures of these flavors.

To find out where the natural flavors in a food product come
from and the chemicals they contain, contact the food company
by phone or email to ask them directly.

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