I would bet that the last time you went grocery shopping,
you picked out a number of food items that appeared to be pretty healthy. And
it’s likely that when you read the ingredient lists, many of them contained
“natural flavors.” Cool, you might think. What’s better than natural? It’s
probably some fruit or vegetable extract, like cinnamon or turmeric. Heck, it’s
probably even good for me, right?
Unfortunately, “natural” flavors can contain chemicals,
carrier solvents, and preservatives. And they could be made from just about
anything other than petroleum. So, what’s the deal?
What are Natural Flavors?
The official FDA
definition of a natural flavor is “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.”
Whew. That was a mouthful. And if your takeaway from that
definition is that “natural flavor” could pretty much mean anything, I’d have
to agree. And that’s pretty disconcerting for someone who likes to know what’s
in my food. Especially since these substances are pretty much everywhere.
There are over 2,500 chemically defined flavor substances used
in the United States and Europe. Despite the fact that “natural flavors” are
comprised of just about anything used for flavor, they are all lumped together
under one name. In fact, out of 80,000 foods in Environmental Working Group’s
Food Scores database,
“natural flavors” is the 4th most
common ingredient of all.
Why are Natural Flavors Used?
Why are natural flavors used so much, and in so many things?
In short, because manufacturers believe they make food taste better, which is
good for sales. And in many cases, they are also a cheap way to cover up
bad-tasting food. For example, a piece of ripe fruit can taste amazing. But if
a farm picks its fruit too green, and ships it 10,000 miles, it may lack
flavor, color, and sweetness. If a company can add some natural flavors (plus a
hefty dose of sugar and maybe even some food dye), suddenly the food will taste
sweet and flavorful, and look brightly colored. The result is a poor substitute
for real food, but these practices can be profitable, and most consumers will
Creating these substances is big business. The food industry
employs what are called “flavor scientists,” whose main job is to mimic the
taste of different foods and make them more flavorful and even addictive to
In other words, these flavorings are used to keep you coming
back for more.
Natural Flavor Definitions Vary Around the Globe
There are some differences between
the natural flavor ingredients in the United States and those used in the
European Union. In the EU, the natural flavor has to originate from a
vegetable, animal, or microbiological source and must be made through a
traditional food preparation process. But in the US, natural flavors can be an
essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate,
distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis (I had to look
up that last word. It means fermentation caused by an enzyme).
The natural flavors in other countries differ still more.
India requires that they’re derived exclusively from vegetables and doesn’t
allow microbiological processes. In Japan, natural flavors can be made from a
limited list of plant and animal sources. In Canada, any flavorings that are
not made from plant, animal, or microbiological sources have to be called
“artificial flavorings.” In 2002, regulations in
Australia and New Zealand were revised to remove any references to natural
flavors, making it impossible to differentiate between artificial and natural
What’s the Difference Between Natural Flavors and
Interestingly, natural and artificial flavors aren’t
actually all that different from one another.
Both are generally made in a lab setting, but while
artificial flavors are derived from petroleum and other substances you can’t
eat, natural flavors are generally made, at least originally, from natural
sources. Chemically, natural and artificial flavors are often the same
molecules — the difference is the process and the raw ingredients they’re made
from, more than the end product.
To make a natural flavor without actually using the imitated
food itself, flavor scientists look for cheaper sources that mimic the natural
food’s molecular “fingerprint.”
Sometimes, natural compounds aren’t actually derived from
the flavor they’re used for. A good (or bad) example of this is McDonald’s beef
flavoring, which is derived from
milk and wheat, among other substances. Similarly, African violets may be used
to produce “watermelon” flavoring, and volatiles from grapefruit may be used to
produce so-called “passion fruit” flavor. Fermented,
genetically-engineered yeast is
often used to make “vanilla” and “saffron” flavors. Artificial vanillin flavor
is usually made from compounds called
guaiacol or lignin, which come from distilled wood tar or tree resin — or wood
pulp. In each case, a base is often diluted and may be combined with other
flavor and scent blends made in the lab.
At the end of the day, many natural flavors are highly
processed and contain a host of chemical additives. In fact, there could be as
many as 100 chemicals in
a single natural flavor.
What About Organic Natural Flavors?
Okay, so what about natural flavors that carry an organic
In order to be considered certified organic,
the natural flavor has to contain at least 95% organically grown base
ingredients. And contain no more than 5% non-organic base ingredients in its
composition. It also cannot be made using synthetic extraction solvents. And it
can’t contain any synthetic carriers or artificial preservatives. Certified
organic natural flavors are non-GMO, and no ionizing radiation is used in their
The main perk is that most of the components used are grown
organically. But according to the USDA,
organic natural flavors (which contain 95-100% organically grown ingredients)
must be made “from
natural sources and have not been chemically modified in a way which makes them
different than their natural chemical state” and are not allowed to be made
with synthetic solvents or artificial preservatives. Organic natural
contain the additives propylene glycol, polyglycerol esters of fatty
acids, mono- and di-glycerides, benzoic acid, polysorbate 80, medium-chain
triglycerides, BHT, BHA, or triacetin. So, while there are definitely
advantages to organic natural flavors, they still may contain some less than
How Are Natural and Artificial Flavors Regulated?
The FDA’s Food Additives and Amendment Act (FAA) of 1958
states that the FDA is responsible for
ensuring the safety of new food additives, including flavors, before they can
be used in food products. But the FDA essentially punts on the issue by
allowing most flavorings to be designated as “generally recognized as safe”
The trouble is, GRAS substances are not really regulated.
These ingredients can actually bypass any FDA safety reviews. It’s a mechanism
by which the manufacturers can decide that a substance is “safe” all on their
The icing on the GRAS oxymoron cake? Manufacturers can do
all of this without even telling the FDA that they’re using a substance in
food. That’s right; the FDA may not even know a chemical exists because the
company making it never told them (and didn’t have to). Some experts estimate
that the FDA may be unaware of around 1,000 chemicals
currently being used in the food system.
Basically, companies just have to conclude that the
flavoring wouldn’t cause harmful health effects when consumed in amounts
expected for humans. This is often determined through the company’s own funded
research, or “expert panels” that they assemble at their own discretion, which
typically include company employees or contractors. When the panel is done, the
company still gets to decide whether to share its conclusions with the FDA.
What’s more, the Government Accountability Office released
a report in
2010 saying that decisions regarding whether an ingredient should be added to
the GRAS list could legitimately be influenced by financial or business
associations. Although the FDA has guidelines in place to prevent conflicts of
interest from FDA employees and expert advisory panels, this doesn’t apply to
expert panels formed by private companies used to reach GRAS consensus
decisions. In other words, if there’s money to be made, then there are
loopholes that can make it okay for a company to let that influence their
decision — regardless of any possible dangers to public health.
Common Natural Flavors and Their Health Effects
All of this means that there is a lot we don’t know. There
only rarely has been testing by any objective third parties. And since almost
everybody is eating natural flavors every day, it’s hard to discern what the
health consequences might be. So, if the cumulative impact of certain natural
flavors, over the course of decades, did turn out to cause cancer or autoimmune
diseases — how would we ever figure that out?
Meanwhile, there are some that are sources of concern based
on what we do know. Here are some of the most common natural flavors and
their known health risks.
This one is best known as natural butter flavoring.
Unfortunately, when you consume diacetyl, you may be in for more than buttery
fingers. A condition sometimes referred to as “popcorn lung” has been shown to
affect workers in microwave popcorn factories. According to the CDC,
studies have found an association between exposure to diacetyl vapor over time
in microwave popcorn facilities and workers developing abnormal lung function
and shortness of breath. Animal studies have
further linked diacetyl
toxicity to airway damage.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
Probably best known for being added to many Chinese foods,
MSG is generally used as a flavor enhancer. When it is used in this way in
packaged foods, it is supposed to be listed on the ingredient label. However,
glutamate byproducts like MSG can be found in natural flavors, in which case
their presence won’t be spelled out on the label. MSG consumption has
with obesity, metabolic disorders, Chinese
Restaurant Syndrome, neurotoxic effects, and reproductive organ damage.
Best known for its use as a natural lemon flavoring, citral
is a skin and mucous membrane irritant. Several human toxicity
studies have found citral to be a strong primary irritant when inhaled
and used in skin patch tests. Environmental Working Group also notes some concerns
regarding citral and reproductive toxicity.
Methyl N-Acetyl Anthranilate
Commercially known as a common natural berry flavoring, this
one has been shown to cause phototoxicity in
some people. What this means is that when consumption of this chemical is
combined with exposure to sunlight, some people get a skin irritation that
looks like a bad sunburn.
This one has most often been used in strawberry-flavored
foods and drinks. Studies
show that it doesn’t necessarily have bad health effects when consumed
in low amounts. However, it certainly has a gross factor. Castoreum is an anal
secretion beavers use to mark their territories, that also happens to smell
like vanilla. Fortunately, its use in foods has significantly decreased since
the 1980s. This appears to be largely because more food companies began seeking
Kosher approval, and this ingredient doesn’t fit the bill. It’s also rare and
therefore expensive. Still, it might be lurking in some foods.
Natural Flavors and Food Allergens
Many flavor additives could be dangerous for people with
food allergies, too. The FDA requires that companies disclose if their product
contains one of the eight major food
allergens: milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, peanuts, or tree nuts.
But what if you’re allergic to something else that isn’t on that list? It could
be used in the process of creating natural flavors, and the manufacturer won’t
be required to disclose it. It could be made from any number of things,
If you experience an allergic reaction after eating a
“naturally-flavored” food, it may very well be because of the natural flavors.
Get in touch with the manufacturer directly and ask them if the allergen you’re
concerned about is used to make their natural flavors. The best way to avoid
this altogether, especially if you have a severe food allergy, is to choose
natural flavor-free whole foods as much as possible. This way, you don’t have
to worry about additives at all — especially undisclosed and potentially
What You Can Do
The first line of defense against dangerous ingredients is
to read food labels so you can make informed choices. But when it comes to
“natural flavors,” that’s more difficult because they could be literally almost
anything. For many people, this might be a reason to avoid “natural flavors”
altogether. But if you eat anything packaged, you’ll find this is easier said
than done because they are so widely used.
And if you’re frustrated with the use of natural flavors and
other chemicals in the food system, there are some steps you take. You can
support products and brands that are natural flavors-free. You can call or
write to companies, or post on their social media pages, letting them know you
care, asking them to disclose which natural flavors they actually use, or to
stop using them altogether. And you can boycott products that use natural
flavors, and let the manufacturer know why.
If enough people speak up, before long, companies will begin
advertising with pride on package labels that they are free of added natural
and artificial flavors.
We can make this happen.
This is also a great opportunity to find alternatives to add
more flavor to your food. For instance, use real herbs and spices — and real
extracts. Food can be so flavorful on its own thanks to Mother Nature — the
original (and still the best!) flavor scientist. And once you adopt a diet full
of less processed foods, you might be surprised at how your taste buds adapt.
Apples and blueberries and sweet potatoes might start tasting amazing. And your
desire for added flavors may simply go away. The truth is that a real organic
peach, picked at the peak of ripeness, tastes infinitely more “peachy” than any
natural peach flavoring ever could.