So What Exactly Are ‘Natural Flavors’?

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You’re probably familiar with seeing ingredient lists with names that seem more at home in a chemistry lab than in your food. We’ve been told to stay away from these artificial ingredients, so when we see the familiar “natural flavors” on the label, it’s assumed that it’s good to go. But what exactly are natural flavors? Well, let’s delve deep into what you need to understand about them.

There are over 80,000 foods created by the Environmental Working Group, and natural flavoring is the fourth most common ingredient found on labels, outranked only by salt, water, and sugar. Natural flavoring essentially plays the role of giving the food you eat flavor, making it more appealing. When food is processed, pasteurized, or stored, a lot of flavor is lost during this process, which is then restored due to natural flavors.

When a product contains “natural flavors” it means the flavor in question is 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 product, or fermentation product. Simplified, natural flavoring is derived from something that occurs, naturally. 

But wait, things get even more complex: Natural flavors can consist of 50 * 100 different components, often including emulsifiers, preservatives, and solvents. Sometimes these chemicals are synthetic, blurring the lines between whether natural flavoring is truly natural. Often times, these chemicals are hardly discernible between artificial flavoring compounds found in highly processed foods.

While these chemicals most likely will not cause harm to your body, it does call into question what really is behind the auspicious “natural flavor” label found on your food. The only entity that truly knows what chemicals are found in these foods are the manufacturers themselves. While it is disconcerting to know that there is a level of deception behind natural flavoring, there is some level of justification for using them. Preserving foods with natural flavors can prevent food from becoming bitter, rotten, or even poisonous by preventing enzymes from catalyzing.

Knowing this has, an entirely new wave of consumers has sprouted up, demanding that companies begin using “clean labels” that are entirely transparent and honest with their products. While we may not see “natural flavors” completely go away on labels, at least consumers along with food manufacturers are allowing for an increased level of honesty and openness with the ingredients found in our food. In the end, eating foods with natural flavors aren’t going to be the cause of any major health concerns. Just remember, as long as you stick to a diet mainly consisting of whole foods, a little natural flavoring won’t hurt you. 

Avid writer and reader with a curious mind. I'm always looking to get the most out of life! Follow me on Twitter @whatsaschoon

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