I want to believe that the food I eat comes from nature. But nature is a funny word. Ever see the phrase “natural flavors” on a label and imagine it’s an ingredient from a meadow? Nope. What are natural flavors? What does natural flavors mean? What is in natural flavors? Hang on, this may be a bumpy ride.
What are natural flavors?
Natural flavors are any food additives that originated in nature. Or a part of them originated in nature. So the base of the flavor came from an animal, plant, yeast—something naturally occurring on Earth. Natural flavors are one of the top listed ingredients in food, right after salt, water, and sugar. Natural flavors are a label used by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA describes them this way: “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.”
What does natural flavors mean?
The term natural flavors doesn’t really mean much, to be honest. It just means one compound from the flavoring agent came from a natural source rather than a synthetic chemical invented in a lab. As you can see from that FDA blather, the term is pretty broad. A natural flavor can still be made up of a lot of preservatives and chemicals along with a natural extract or two.
If a label says “artificial flavors” that means the flavoring agent was created entirely using synthetic chemicals, not something “found in nature.” As the FDA says, an artificial flavor “is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof.” So, if some vanilla is made with natural flavors, then the flavor was made using chemicals extracted and processed from a vanilla bean. If it was made with artificial flavors, then it was made with chemicals that approximate a vanilla flavor.
What’s in natural flavors?
There can be a lot of different things in natural flavors. Even the FDA’s description of them isn’t really a definition; it’s more of a listing of what can and can’t be in them. But, there are some basic things and patterns that keep showing up. While dairy, eggs, and nuts could be natural flavors, most (but not all) of the time common allergens will be listed separately along with gluten and non-vegan components. Some common natural flavors include citral, which is used in citrus flavored drinks; benzaldehyde, which is used to give an almond flavor and aroma; and amyl acetate, which is the banana flavor in some baked goods. These are natural because they came from a “natural” source. My personal favorite natural flavor is castoreum. It’s a vanilla flavor that comes from a beaver’s anal glands. No crap.
Thoughts? Questions? Complete disagreement? Leave a comment!