What Is Natural Flavor?

If you’re anything like me, you read labels.  I read labels on everything.  My husband and I have completed a few rounds of the Whole 30 challenge, and one of the biggest things we learned was to read ingredients.  Reading just the Nutrition “Facts” is not enough because those can be misleading. But reading the ingredients list can be similar to reading in another language at times. Thank goodness for Google. 

One of the ingredients that I come across frequently is natural flavor.  Sounds harmless enough, right?  With the laundry list of gross sudo-food ingredients out there, natural flavor seems like something I can deal with.  Even though it isn’t currently on my ingredient black list (yet), I couldn’t help but wonder what it actually is.  Because after all, it is really in almost everything.  

Natural flavor is one of those vague terms that gets thrown around loosely.   This always makes me a little weary.  Here is the definition of “natural flavor” according to the FDA: 

(3) 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. Natural flavors include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants listed in 182.10, 182.20, 182.40, and 182.50 and part 184 of this chapter, and the substances listed in 172.510 of this chapter.

You can read the rest of this chapter here if you want all the nitty gritty.  Basically, it’s any flavor extracted from any food source by any means.  Could we get any more vague?  Please don’t let the term “natural” fool you.  It used to fool me and at times it still tugs on my purse strings.  Tons of things are natural.  That does not mean they are all good for you.  The FDA does not have a specific definition of the term “natural”, and therefore it is not regulated.  In most cases, it is simply a marketing ploy to get you to buy it.  

So buyer, beware!  We have to do our research. 

According to the Environmental Working Group, natural flavor is the fourth most common ingredient in their database of food.  It falls only behind salt, water, and sugar.  So if you’re eating any type of processed food, chances are, you’re eating natural flavor. 

Is it good or bad?

That depends on who you’re asking.  There’s such a wide range of possibilities that fall into the FDA definition.  Some aren’t that scary.  I’m an essential oils junkie, so if that’s all it was, I wouldn’t be too scared.  Also by this definition, you could get some tasty beef bone broth and call it natural flavor.  That’s super healthy!  Not to mention, I wouldn’t enjoy my pumpkin bread near as much without the vanilla extract.  

But then some of the other big words get a little confusing and back to Google I go. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the majority of natural flavors actually aren’t just nature’s goodness.  Manufacturers create most of these flavors in a lab with additives and solvents, then inject them back into your food.  

Even MSG (monosodium glutamate) can actually fall under the umbrella of natural flavor.  

Here are a few more shocking tidbits from EatSipTrip.com.  You can read the full article here

“But things get even trickier still, as manufacturers aren’t actually required to list which of the oils, distillates, essences, juices or other food products are included to create a discernible natural flavor. And up to 100 different sources can be used to create a product’s singular natural flavor. Complicating matters even further, the FDA considers more than 3,000 chemical food additives to be, you guessed it, natural flavors.”

Ugh. 100 sources to create one flavor? This makes no sense. 

Why is it in everything?

In my opinion, it’s all about money.  According to processed food manufacturers, the flavors of the actual ingredient just aren’t enough to get you to want their product.  The blueberry in your granola bar can’t just taste like a regular wholesome blueberry.  They want you to have a blueberry explosion of flavor in your mouth that keeps you coming back for more, buying again and again.  Everything is always about the bottom line.  

Did you know that McDonald’s French fries have “natural beef flavor” as one of the ingredients?  Because apparently said salty fried potatoes aren’t delicious enough.   Want to guess where that natural beef flavor comes from?  Wheat and milk derivatives.  What?  So even the beef flavor added to your French fries isn’t from actual beef.  What I find even crazier is that this is not the case in the UK or India.  McDonald’s fries are actually vegan there.  But here in the US, money talks the loudest.  They don’t think people will like the flavor as much, and won’t change the recipe.  

Should I avoid it?

This is completely a personal decision.   It isn’t easy to avoid, but it is possible.  If you have certain health conditions or prefer to eat as clean as possible, then cutting it out of your diet might be beneficial.  If you avoid things like artificial flavors already, then you may want to avoid natural flavors as well.  In the end, they really aren’t that different.  They are all just blanket terms slapped on a package to get you to buy it.  Truth be told, only a small percentage of natural flavors are actually completely “natural”.  

The simplest way to avoid them is to cut processed foods all together.  

That isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it can be done.  Stick to fresh foods in their most natural state.  For anything you do buy in a package, read the ingredient list.  If it says natural flavor, and you are concerned about where this may come from, you will need to call the manufacturers to investigate.  They may or may not give you a straight answer right away, but I’d encourage you to keep digging until you find out.  Chances are, the harder it is to get an answer, the more shady (i.e. less natural) their process is.  

The Big Picture

I know that eating one snack with natural flavor in the ingredients isn’t going to make me drop dead tomorrow.  But personally, I like to think about the big picture.  I do believe that the more we question manufacturers and demand answers about our food, the better they will do.  They can’t keep secrets about their unnatural processes forever.  If we expose them, we force them to improve.  The more we support companies who are already being responsible with our health, the more other companies will do the same.   In the end, we’ll all win.  

Maybe, just maybe, one day, our food will actually only have Mother Nature given flavor. 


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