What is Natural Flavor?
What Is Natural Flavor?
If you ever look at the food label on any of your favorite processed foods, you’ll likely see either “artificial flavors” or “natural flavors” somewhere near the bottom of the ingredients list. But what do those terms actually mean?
According to the Food and Drug Administration, natural flavors are flavors derived from natural sources like fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, and other plant-based materials as well as animal products like meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, etc., and artificial flavors come from anywhere else. However, these definitions do not mean that natural flavors are unprocessed.
What Does Natural Flavor Mean?
The term natural flavor applies to any flavor that is made from plant or animal sources, but extracting those flavors is not always as simple as pressing oil from an orange peel or grinding a mix of herbs and spices.
While there are extraction processes that require less meddling than others, such as those for essential oils, extracts, oleoresins, and distillates, some natural flavors, especially those from animal products, require enough intervention that the average person might not continue to see the end result as something worthy of the term natural. These include protein hydrolysates and reactionary compounds created through the heating or fermentation of source materials.
Furthermore, just because a product lists natural flavors on the ingredients list doesn’t mean those flavors come from the source that you think they do. It feels like common sense to assume that a raspberry-flavored cookie has flavors from actual raspberries in it, but it might not. Additionally, many flavor compounds are found in a multitude of source materials so the same flavor compound could be sourced from two different plants and still end up tasting the same even though neither is derived from raspberries.
Natural vs. Artificial Flavors
Natural and artificial flavors both possess their own unique strengths and weaknesses, but the main points of concern when comparing the two are health, safety, and environmental impact.
Which is healthier?
The general assumption around natural flavors is that they are somehow inherently healthier than artificial flavors.
It is possible to get added benefits from functional flavor ingredients, like citrus fruits and herbs, when they are extracted in ways that preserve more of their original components beyond just the flavor compounds, but when we get right down to the chemistry of it, most artificial flavors are not significantly different from the natural flavors they are emulating, in fact, many are totally indiscernible.
This brings us back to the different types of extraction processes for natural flavors. There is a significant difference between an extract or essential oil that is distilled directly from the source and specific individual flavor compounds that are isolated and extracted from those sources. Regardless of the wide gap between these types of extractions, their products are both still considered natural flavors.
In addition, most flavors are made with the distinct purpose of adding flavor and nothing else. Unless a product is specifically using flavor ingredients with functional benefits, the flavor compounds used are most likely not providing any additional benefit that would be gained by eating the source material. Orange flavoring is not going to include the level of vitamin C you would get from an orange.
The more significant health-impacting aspects of a processed food product's ingredient list will be the amount and type of sweetener, preservatives, and other quality and stabilizing additives used to deliver consistency, preserve quality, and prolong shelflife.
Which is safer?
Many people feel that natural flavors, or products in general, are going to be safer because they will be free of chemical additives that they believe could be harmful. The idea that any ingredient that you cannot pronounce is one to be avoided has been bandied about the blogosphere for quite some time.
The truth is that the chemical or scientific name for almost anything is going to be difficult for the average person to decipher and pronounce without prior exposure to the word.
However, there is a safety concern around the potential for allergic reactions to natural ingredients that are less common with synthetically derived compounds. Artificial flavors face a great deal of scrutiny and only chemicals that have been deemed safe are used and almost all of them have set limits to avoid any potential reaction.
This is not to say that natural flavor compounds do not also have to adhere to the same guidelines, but a natural flavor made from a known allergen will require warnings and could limit the number of people able to safely consume it.
Which is better for the environment?
One of the biggest concerns regarding natural flavors is the impact of having to produce enough natural source material to satisfy the demand for natural flavors. This demand is especially strenuous for countries in the global south that provide much of the citrus and tropical fruit as well as coffee, chocolate, sugar, vanilla, and spices that are used in today’s products.
While wild natural spaces continue to shrink in the face of development and increased agricultural production, artificial flavors offer an alternative. With development and agriculture also comes the displacement and destruction of native species as a result of deforestation and the use of industrial pesticides.
Another aspect to consider is how long we want to be able to enjoy these flavors. If we rely only on natural flavors we will likely see a point where it is no longer viable or even possible to obtain natural sources.
Potential catastrophic events like the extinction of certain types of bees or diseases that attack crops that have been weakened by a lack of genetic diversity could result in entire foods no longer existing on earth. It’s already happened with the Gros Michel banana, which is why banana-flavored things don’t taste like the bananas you get from the grocery store.