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Don’t Be Fooled by “Natural” Flavors

March 4, 2011

Graduated cylinders and beaker filled with chemical compounds
Photo by Horia Varlan

Even if you generally avoid processed foods, and otherwise diligently read ingredient labels, how often do you turn a blind eye to “natural” flavors? After all, they’re “natural”, how bad can they be, right?

Wrong. There’s 2 main problems with natural flavors:

1) They’re not natural.

When most health-conscious folks see “artificial flavors” listed as an ingredient, they’ll put that product right back on the shelf. Maybe they should consider doing the same with “natural flavors”…

According to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation,

“The similarities between these two broad categories are far more significant than the differences. Both are man-made additives that give most processed food most of its taste.”

In fact, both natural and artificial flavors are manufactured in labs, by the same companies that make fragrances, and by a very similar process. As Schlosser explains,

“ The aroma of a food can be responsible for as much as 90 percent of its taste.”

Basically, processed foods are almost entirely stripped of their flavors during processing. They’re almost a blank slate (if not worse) in terms of flavor and can be made to taste like anything via the addition of these flavor compounds. Next time you’re skimming ingredient labels, see how many products you can find without the addition of some sort of flavor chemical. The flavor industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s literally what gives processed food its taste, as well as extending its shelf life and cutting ingredient costs.

Are natural flavors really that similar to artificial ones? According to Schlosser,

“Natural flavors and artificial flavors sometimes contain exactly the same chemicals, produced through different methods… A natural flavor is not necessarily more healthful or purer than an artificial one.”

The US Food and Drug Administration defines “natural flavors” as follows (From the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR)):

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.

So as long as you start with a natural ingredient, you can do whatever the heck you want with it, and the end result, regardless of how many solvents  you used or how you processed it, will be labeled as a “natural flavor.”

Maybe at this point you’re starting to wonder exactly what the natural flavor you’re consuming is made of? That brings us to the second problem.

2) You’ll never know what you’re actually eating.

All these flavors are proprietary. Meaning the manufacturers have no legal obligation to disclose what’s in them, as long as the chemicals are GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe – sounds reassuring, doesn’t it?).

Here’s another comforting thought, Schlosser, who’s been inside many of these flavor manufacturers’ plants says that these flavor compounds often contain more ingredients than the foods they’re flavoring.

How do we limit our exposure to these questionable substances?

1) Eat whole foods. Seems to be a pretty foolproof solution in many regards. Whole foods don’t require ingredient labels.

2) Read ingredient labels. With the processed food you do buy, at least be aware of what’s in them, and don’t be lulled into thinking that it’s “natural.”

If I want something to taste like blueberries, I expect actual blueberries to be used. If I’m about to eat a science experiment, then I’d prefer it wasn’t labeled “natural.”

What’s your approach to natural flavors? Do you turn a blind eye, or find alternatives?

Shared with Real Food Wednesday and Fight Back Fridays.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen Bannan from NaturalAsPossibleMom July 13, 2011 at 10:33 AM

I’m off to tweet this. Great post. It’s a huge problem, IMHO. I try and stick with products that have actual named ingredients, but even some of the things you buy at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s use “natural flavors” so we do end up with some of these food additives in our closet. Bah.

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[email protected] July 14, 2011 at 9:24 AM

Thanks! I always read ingredient labels carefully, but natural flavors sneak their way into so many food that they can be hard to avoid!

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Kara July 13, 2011 at 12:59 PM

Great post, thank you.

Are natural flavors the same as MSG? Or maybe some natural flavors are MSG and others are not- but still bad for you.

These chemicals they add to the food are so confusing. No thanks I don’t want to eat a science experiment!

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[email protected] July 14, 2011 at 9:48 AM

No kidding! The fewer ingredients the better, I can’t believe some of the crap that end up in our food..

As for MSG, that’s a specific flavor-enhancing food additive. In the US, if MSG is used, it has to be listed as an ingredient as such (monosodium glutamate). Also, a product can’t be advertised as “no MSG” if it contains ingredients that are high in free glutamate such as hydrolyzed protein (another ubiquitous ingredient).

Although MSG shouldn’t be disguised under “natural flavors”, and probably usually isn’t (as per labelling regulations), various sources online warn that sometimes that’s indeed the case – same with the catchalls “spices” and “seasonings”.

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Elena Venuti July 23, 2011 at 8:14 AM

Great post! Another ‘innocent’ ingredient on food labels I stay away from is ‘spices’.

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[email protected] July 28, 2011 at 3:40 PM

I try to avoid “spices” as well, since different forms of MSG can sneak their way in there.. And you never really know what you’re getting.. I don’t know why they’re able to get away with that sort of labeling..

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justyn April 5, 2012 at 2:39 AM

great post, im loving learning all of these new things about foods. this one made my day, thankyou

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[email protected] April 5, 2012 at 10:11 AM

You’re welcome, thanks for stopping by :)

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audrey October 18, 2012 at 4:50 AM

I just read the ingredients on my very expensive baby cereal by Simply Kids from Whole Foods and was wondering what exactly “natural flavor” is on the ingredient list. So I guess it’s not really natural after all. It makes me sick to think that these manufacturing companies have no conscience at all. He has been eating this for months and it’s probably loaded with msg as it’s about 4th on the ingredient list.

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[email protected] October 22, 2012 at 9:41 AM

That really sucks – especially when we’re paying a premium for all these so called natural products. And when we’re feeding these products to our children with the best of intentions. I’m becoming increasingly picky about what I buy, and making more stuff myself. But really we should have the option of buying truly natural products.

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Heather February 14, 2013 at 10:44 AM

Beaver anal juice, or Castoreum, is listed as Natural flavours as well.

snopes.com
http://www.snopes.com/food/ingredient/castoreum.asp

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[email protected] February 14, 2013 at 5:51 PM

Well, in their defense, beaver anal juice IS natural ;)

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