What Does “Natural Flavors” Actually Mean?

Natural flavors

What Does “Natural Flavors” Actually Mean?

Grocery shoppers are becoming increasingly advised to read the labels before they buy. Why is this? There are hundreds of ingredients in products in the U.S. that are illegal in many other countries. So yeah, read the labels. “Stay away from the 12-letter ingredients that you can’t pronounce” nutritionists will say. And stay away you should indeed because, honestly, who knows what’s in there if the label isn’t fully disclosing everything.  So that means natural flavors should always be alright, right?


Actually, not all wellness experts agree with this logic. The Food and Drug Administration maintains that everything under this blanket term must be derived from “real food”, but there are more than 2,500 ingredient combos that classify as “natural flavors”. The FDA has a broad idea of what “natural” means and food manufacturers, more likely than not, don’t know what that list of 2,500 ingredients consists of. This leaves many to wonder just how safe those “natural” ingredients are. So what should you understand about natural flavors?


What can be considered natural?


At first glance, “natural flavors” sounds pretty straight forward. For ingredient label purposes, “natural flavors” generally means that the flavor is derived from a spice, fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice. This also means edible yeast, herb, bark bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products from these foods. In short, the flavor must come from a plant or animal.


It gets complicated. According to the Environmental Working Group, a single natural flavor can consist of 50 to 100 different components. These often include solvents, emulsifiers, and preservatives. These substances are used to preserve the natural ingredients being used or help them mix together. These are often synthetic. They most likely won’t hurt you but they definitely leave a gray area in terms of what’s considered truly natural.


A food scientist’s perspective


Dhyaneshwar B. Chawan, PhD, is the president of SRIM Enterprises, a food research company that formulates natural flavors for a variety of food and beverage companies. He has been testing these ingredients for over 25 years. He knows exactly what is going into the more secretive natural flavor blends. Even though it may not be written out on the label, he makes it clear that solvents, emulsifiers, and preservatives are completely safe to consume. Get this, he argues it’s a good thing they can be added because they’re keeping the food safe.


Dr. Chawan explains that the natural flavors must be preserved so that the flavor doesn’t change. It can even go as far as making the flavors poisonous. Oxygen can change the flavor and make it bitter and even dangerous to ingest. Dr. Chawan says that enzymes must be added to prevent this change.


Although Dr. Chawan believes in the positive capabilities of the additives, he is all for adding more description product labels. He thinks that people deserve to know what they are putting into their body and he doesn’t mind sharing the ingredients in his mixtures.


What can a consumer do?


Consumers are demanding transparency from companies. Consumers have requested more information from natural food companies about what “natural flavors” means and when companies turn to their flavor scientists, they are unwilling to share their formulations. Sketchy for both the consumer and the brand. Because of instances like this, consumers are even willing to pay more for products that are 100% honest on their labels.


All in all, it’s important to remember that consumers have the power. (Even the FDA is moving toward more transparency, check out the new nutrition labels!) Stay informed so you know exactly what you’re voting for, and always read the labels!