Natural Flavors: The Ultimate Guide To What’s Safe

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Natural Flavors: The Ultimate Guide To What’s Safe

Natural flavors come from food sources and add flavoring to food products. Learn about natural and artificial flavors, and which are okay to eat.

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If you’ve scanned a food label lately, you’ve likely seen “natural flavors” on the ingredient list. Natural flavors, simply put, are food-derived agents that add taste to food products.  

These compounds, depending on the food manufacturer, can be a safe and welcome burst of flavor for your taste buds. Unfortunately, not all-natural flavors are created equal. 

In this article, you’ll learn the truth about natural flavors: what they are, if they’re better than artificial flavors, and whether or not you should consume them. 

What Are Natural Flavors?

Natural flavors are food flavorings derived from plants or animals. Simple as that. 

More specifically, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA): natural flavors (or natural flavorings) are 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”[*].

Also per the FDA, natural flavors function solely to flavor food. Nutrition isn’t part of the definition. 

Unlike whole food spices and herbs, natural flavors are man-made through roasting, heating, or a process called enzymolysis. Enzymolysis is the breakdown of food by enzymes — fermentation, for example.

The major categories of natural flavors are[*]:

  • Essential oil
  • Oleoresin (mix of oils)
  • Essence or extract
  • Protein hydrolysate (protein broken down with water molecules)
  • Distillate (made with boiling and evaporation methods)

Natural flavors, you’ve probably noticed, are everywhere. In fact, “natural flavor” is the fourth most common ingredient in the Food Scores database compiled by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). This database, by the way, lists over 80,000 products![*]

To be clear, “natural flavor” doesn’t usually refer to a single ingredient. Instead, it’s more like a cocktail — and what’s in this cocktail is largely up to the food manufacturer. 

What Does Natural Actually Mean?

Here’s the truth. To say a food product is “natural” or “all-natural” means almost nothing.  

That’s right. The FDA hasn’t formally defined the term “natural”, which leaves lots of wiggle room for food companies[*]. 

The FDA has acknowledged this problem, considering “the term ‘natural’ to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic” has been added to the food product. But this message is merely guidance, not regulation[*]. 

And due to this lack of regulation, almost any food can be called natural. 

Natural flavors are somewhat better defined. Natural flavors, according to the FDA must originate from plants or animals. Artificial flavors, on the other hand, are derived from synthetic sources[*].

Both natural and artificial flavors are chemicals, but that doesn’t mean they’re unhealthy. Everything you eat and drink — including water — is composed of chemicals. Chemicals are the stuff of life. 

Some chemicals, of course, are better for you than others. Which chemicals you consume depends, in large part, on the company flavoring your food.  

Sadly, many companies use synthetic solvents and preservatives in their flavor cocktails. The FDA is fairly lenient on this point, allowing an army of strange chemicals to lurk, unlisted, on the ingredient label[*].

The health effects of these synthetic solvents and preservatives aren’t well understood, so probably best to avoid them. 

To make matters worse, flavor extracts derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can also be listed as “natural flavors” on the label. 

Okay, you get the point. Since “natural” isn’t regulated by the FDA, you can’t rely on it. 

Ingredients Considered “Natural Flavors”

The list of ingredients considered natural flavors is not a small one. There are literally thousands of approved flavoring agents. 

Here’s a small sampling of commonly-used natural flavors:

  • Vanillin: This vanilla bean-extracted compound carries a strong vanilla flavor. 
  • Lemon essential oil: Derived from lemons, a small amount of this volatile oil adds the taste of lemon. 
  • Amyl acetate: Distilled from bananas to add fruity flavor to cakes, muffins, and other baked goods.
  • Citral: Extracted from lemongrass, lemon, orange, and other citrus fruits — citral adds a citrus flavor to a variety of products. 
  • Geraniol: Geraniol is used in peach, orange, or lemon flavors. 
  • Anise essential oil: Black jelly beans are often flavored with the aromatic taste of this essential oil. 
  • Benzaldehyde: Derived from almonds, benzaldehyde adds nutty flavor. 
  • Acetoin: If you taste butter in your food, acetoin may have been used. 
  • Massoia lactone: From the bark of the Massoia tree, this natural flavor adds the taste of coconut to many food products. 

Often products have both natural and artificial flavors listed on the label. There is, in fact, plenty of overlap between these categories — and the classification rules aren’t always logical. 

For instance, if you add cinnamon-derived flavor to a cinnamon bagel, it’s considered a “natural flavor”. But if you add the same cinnamon flavor to a plain bagel, it’s considered an “artificial flavor”[*]. Yes, weird. 

Are Natural Flavors Better Than Artificial Flavors?

Here’s the main difference between natural and artificial flavors:

  • Natural flavors are derived from plants or animals
  • Artificial flavors originate in the lab

Both natural and artificial flavors are made in controlled environments. Both are made in the lab.

A natural flavor can be identical, chemically speaking, to an artificial flavor. Same molecule, different origin. 

There are thousands of natural and artificial flavors used in food products. About 700 flavors are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA, and another 2000 or so have been sanctioned by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States[*][*].

Food manufacturers like artificial flavors because they’re generally cheaper to produce than natural flavors. But since many consumers prefer “natural” flavors, companies often shell out a few extra bucks for this purpose. 

But as you just learned, natural and artificial flavors are mostly the same. The main difference is their origin.   

There’s one notable exception to this rule: certified organic foods. 

To maintain their organic status, certified organic foods are prohibited from using synthetic solvents, preservatives, or other such chemicals in flavor mixtures[*]. And so if you see “natural flavors” on an organic food label, you can rest a bit easier. 

Yet food products needn’t be certified organic to be safe. Responsible food manufacturers create safe food products, so find a company you trust. 

Are Natural Flavors Safe?

Hundreds of flavors — both natural and artificial — are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA. GRAS means that normal consumption of a substance has been “adequately shown to be safe”[*].

Another list of flavors, however, has not been blessed by the FDA, but rather the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States (FEMA)[*]. FEMA, by the way, is run by food manufacturers and suppliers.

Most flavors are probably safe in small amounts, but hopefully, the FDA will step in and regulate this area more stringently. 

Food allergies are another potential safety concern. Food manufacturers aren’t required to itemize the ingredients in natural flavors, so potential allergens could be hiding — unlabeled — on the ingredient list. 

Because of this, those with severe food allergies need to be extremely careful about consuming natural flavors. When in doubt, check with the company for a full ingredient list or simply avoid them entirely. 

3 Potentially Healthy Natural Flavors 

Many natural flavors are perfectly compatible with a healthy diet, including a whole foods keto diet. In fact, some flavors may even enhance a healthy diet.  

Take vanillin, a natural flavor extracted from vanilla bean. Studies in test tubes and mice have shown that vanillin has antimicrobial, antioxidant, and antidepressant properties[*][*][*]. More human trials are needed though. 

Limonene (from lemon peels) also shows promise. In animal models, limonene has been shown to have immune-boosting and stress-reducing properties[*][*]. Limonene appears to have a good safety profile in humans as well[*].  

Finally, take citral — a compound that adds citrus flavor. In one study, citral was shown to reduce obesity, boost insulin sensitivity, and improve glucose tolerance (a metric of blood sugar health) in rats[*].  

Please note, however, that rigorous clinical trials on these substances are lacking. Vanillin, limonene, and citral are probably safe as flavoring agents, but taking them as supplements should occur only under the guidance of a medical professional.

Should You Consume Natural Flavors?

Imagine this. You’re at the store, pick up a sparkling beverage, and see “natural flavors” on the label. Good to drink or no?

Depends. As you just learned, not all flavors are created equal. Some are better for you than others. 

To find out what, exactly, is in the product you’re consuming, simply call or email the company. If they don’t respond — or if their reply isn’t good enough — consider taking your business elsewhere. 

The best thing to do? Buy from ethical, reputable companies that don’t hide synthetic solvents and preservatives in their food products. 

Whether you’re keto, vegan, or simply living a healthy lifestyle: you deserve to know what’s in your food. Be well, and refer back to this post as needed. 

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