What are “Natural Flavors?” And Why Are They in Your Food?
If there are two things a writer can’t live without, it’s coffee and carbonated water. The latter might be more of personal pleasure, but I highly recommend it for anyone trying to mix-up their water consumption game (one of the hippest games on the block).
As I chugged a cold can of LaCroix this morning, I stumbled upon the ingredient label. Upon scanning it — expecting to see no added ingredients and be rewarded for my beverage choices — I suddenly stumbled upon “natural flavors.” Now, what in the heck is that?
“It sounds innocuous enough,” I told myself. “I’m sure it couldn’t mean anything bad, [nervous laughter] right?”
Nervous laughter is never a good sign
Turns out natural flavors is a food agent that manufacturers add to enhance the taste. It makes processed foods more enticing and sometimes even more addicting. According to Healthline, natural flavors are extracted from one or more of seven substances including:
- Fruit or fruit juice
- Vegetables or vegetable juice
- Edible yeast, herbs, bark, buds, root leaves or plant material
- Dairy products, including fermented products
- Meat, poultry or seafood
From these six sources, food chemists or “flavorists” — scientists whose jobs are to create new flavors and predict new market trends — have created hundreds of different flavor combinations.
Chocolate and vanilla not doing it for you anymore? The flavorists have you covered, with household favorites like benzaldehyde (almond flavoring), massoia lactone (coconut flavor) or castoreum (a vanilla substitute found in the anal secretions of beavers).
Since none of these random extract combinations are explicitly named on ingredient labels, a vegetarian or vegan could be consuming animal products without knowing it.
If “natural flavors” is listed, you can’t know for sure unless the product explicitly states it’s vegan or vegetarian.
Even deadlier, natural flavors may trigger a food allergy. Allergies to milk, egg, fish, soy, and nuts have a disclaimer on the bottom of the ingredient label. But less common allergens, like ones to sesame or bananas, could be triggered by the crude ingredient.
Natural vs. Artificial Flavors
Natural flavors are scary, to say the least, but there’s no way they could be worse than the chemical additive “artificial flavors;” dangerous chemicals that are commonly found in food coloring and candy. [Nervous laughter] Could they?Iwona Castiello d’Antonio on Unsplash
According to health experts, natural and artificial flavors are equally as dangerous and should be avoided. In an interview with Bon Appétit, professor Pia Sorensen explained there’s no difference between the two flavor enhancers.
“Natural and artificial flavors are the exact same molecules,” says Dr. Pia Sorensen, a Harvard professor who teaches courses on the intersection of chemistry and cooking. “Nutritionally, there is no difference between them. Usually, what’s nutritional in the food is not the flavor molecule.”
“Natural” has become the biggest “health halo” in the food industry. Up there with low-fat, free-range, hormone-free, whole wheat, and cage-free. All terms that make us think we’re buying healthy food, but are often used to deceive consumers.
A study on PubMed added some validity to “health halos” when they found consumers are more likely to think food is healthier if it says “natural” on the packaging.
What can be done about it
Raid your pantries, go through your fridges with a fine-toothed comb, and start addressing the BS. Natural flavors are the fourth common ingredient behind water, salt, and sugar, and they’re likely in a lot of the food you're consuming.
They can appear in everything from “healthy” yogurts to granola and protein bars, to drinks like juice, soda, and the new bane of my existence, carbonated water.
While you’re examining all those ingredients, start to question anything that sounds sketchy like modium sodium glutamate (MSG) or sodium nitrate (increases risk of cancer). Pediatrician and quite possibly the food industry’s biggest critic, Robert Lustig put it best:
“The food industry has propagandized the last 40 years of nutritional information. They got rich, and we got sick. Time to embrace the real science of real food.” — Robert Lustig