There’s a lot of confusion and rumor surrounding natural flavors. Here are the facts so you can be more informed about this common ingredient.
I wrote a shorter version of this post that appears on WebMD’s Food & Fitness Blog.
Natural flavors are found in a lot of place: in your can of lime sparkling water, your carton of berry yogurt, and your glass of fruity tea. They’re one of the most common ingredients found on food labels–yet one of the most confusing.
What Are “Natural Flavors”?
Natural flavors are derived from plants or animals. According to the International Food and Information Council, if a food’s flavoring contains any of the following, it is considered “natural”:
- fruit or fruit juice
- vegetable or vegetable juice
- edible yeast
- leaf or similar plant material
- meat, fish
- dairy products
- fermentation products
But “natural flavor” in a product isn’t necessarily just one ingredient. It may be a combination of different flavoring ingredients–even dozens.
What does “natural” even mean?
It’s important to know that the FDA has a pretty fuzzy definition for “natural”. It simply means it doesn’t contain anything man made. Though it has a wholesome and appealing ring to it, “natural” on a food label or ingredient list doesn’t mean it’s healthy, organic, simple, or something your grandma had in her pantry.
Why are natural flavors used?
Natural (and artificial) flavors can help make food taste better, fresher, or like something the product doesn’t actually contain–like natural fruit flavoring in candy. Natural flavors don’t contribute anything nutritionally (no calories, no nutrients), they only provide flavoring.
What’s the difference between natural and artificial flavors?
Natural flavors are derived from plants and animals. Artificial flavors are derived from man-made substances. But both can (and often are) formulated in a lab, and the molecules may be identical.
What’s wrong with natural flavors?
There is some distrust of “natural flavors” and here are two reasons why: First, natural flavors often have additional ingredients in them like preservatives and stabilizers to make the flavors work better in the food. But those additional ingredients don’t have to come from natural sources.
Second, the FDA doesn’t require companies to disclose the specific ingredients included in the natural flavoring. So it’s impossible to know what ingredients are used–and whether you want to avoid them. For instance, vegans would want to steer clear of natural flavors that are derived from animals. And people with food allergies need to know exactly what a food contains.
Unfortunately, with the vague umbrella term of “natural flavor”, you’re left with a lot of questions.
Can MSG be called a natural flavor?
No. According to an FDA spokesperson, if a product contains added MSG, it must include it on the ingredient list. And it may not be lumped into “spices and seasoning”. But keep in mind that the following ingredients also contain MSG (so if you’re avoiding MSG, avoid these ingredients too)
- hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- autolyzed yeast
- hydrolyzed yeast
- yeast extract
- soy extracts
- protein isolate
Can natural flavors contain gluten?
Yes. According to an FDA spokesperson, natural flavor may be derived from gluten-containing grains (wheat, barley, and rye). HOWEVER, if that grain is wheat, you’ll see it on the label. Under labeling law, if an ingredient contains protein from wheat, the word “wheat” must be included either in the ingredients list or “Contains” statement.
Can sesame be called a natural flavor?
Yes–and that’s worrisome, since sesame allergy is a growing concern, and sesame may be hidden (ie: labeled as a “natural flavor”) in foods like candy corn, pizza dough, and some vitamin supplements. The good news: The FDA is currently reviewing whether sesame should be added to the existing allergens, such as wheat and peanut, that are required to be specifically called out on food labels.
What’s the deal with beaver butt?
There’s a rumor swirling online that companies use an oil from beavers’ behinds as natural strawberry and vanilla flavoring. According to the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, a substance from a gland near a beavers’ bottom called castoreum was used in tiny amounts in a small number of flavors that are likely not used today. Castoreum is primarily used in the perfume industry.
Should you avoid natural flavors?
Distrust and frustration around the term “natural flavors” is understandable. I believe it’s better for all of us to know what’s in our food so we can make the right decisions for ourselves. Until the labeling laws change, here’s my advice:
Choose more unprocessed foods. I’d never tell you to shun processed foods entirely–they’re a fact of life for most people–but the more unprocessed foods you eat, the less likely you are to consume natural and artificial flavors. And even when you do, natural flavors tend to be listed near the bottom of a product’s ingredient list–which means it’s one of the smallest ingredients by weight.
Add your own natural flavor. Squeeze a lime into your seltzer, stir strawberries into your yogurt, or swirl maple syrup into plain oatmeal instead of buying flavored versions.
Call the company. If you want to know exactly what’s in the natural flavor listed on your drink or yogurt–especially if there are food allergies in your family or you’re trying to avoid animal products–contact the manufacturer and ask them directly.