What are ‘Natural Flavors’?
I want to talk to you. I want to talk to you about natural flavors. Or, rather, ‘natural flavors. ‘ The ‘natural flavors’ that you often see listed on foods’ ingredients’ labels. Do any of you think that they’re, in fact, natural? If you do, I’m about to break some bad news to you: they’re not, not the way you probably think they are. ‘Natural flavors’ are just flavors derived from ‘natural’ materials and, here, anything goes. Extract from the anal glands of a beaver? Hey ho, let’s do it! I’m not even joking here. This extract, or ‘exudate’, is called castoreum and it comes from ‘the castor sacs’ of mature beavers. What’s it used in? All kinds of things! Like vanilla ice-cream, mmmmm.
But let me step away from this line of discussion and go into a bit of the regulation behind the labeling of flavors as ‘natural.’ Let me start with the USA and then move onto the UK and EU so you can see how similar their pronouncements all are on what constitutes a ‘natural’ flavor.
According to the USA Code of Federal Regulations, a natural flavor is:
“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” (here’s the full code).
Yes. You read that right – (tree) bark gets the green light. Why wouldn’t it? It’s ‘natural’ after all. So is cotton, and leaves, and any kind of discharge from an animal (I’ll let your imagination wander on this one.)
Let’s move the UK now. The UK food regulatory bodies define a ‘natural flavor’ (or indeed, flavoUr), as:
“a flavouring substance (or flavouring substances) which is (or are) obtained, by physical, enzymatic or microbiological processes, from material of vegetable or animal origin which material is either raw or has been subjected to a process normally used in preparing food for human consumption and to no process other than one normally so used” (click here to check out the whole thing).
So barks and leaves seem to be excluded here but, actually, are they? Not really, not if you read ‘vegetable matter’ as including foliage, hehe.
What I want you to pay attention to though is that, in both of the US and UK definitions of ‘natural’ flavor, there is a strong emphasis on the fact that these flavors are substances obtained by various processes (either physical, microbiological, or enzymatic). What this means is that they are processed before they reach their final state. They’re not pressed from a fruit or vegetable and then innocuously blended into our food. They’re usually made in a lab, by people called ‘flavorists‘ – or ‘flavor chemists.’
The European Union takes a similar stance to the US and UK, defining ‘natural flavors’ as:
“A flavouring substance obtained by appropriate physical, enzymatic, or microbiological processes from material of vegetable, animal, or microbiological origin either in the raw state or after processing for human consumption…” (click here to read the whole thing).
As the above three extracts note, most ‘natural flavors’ are made synthetically, in a lab, by flavorists using various different food preparation processes. ‘Natural flavors’ are not just picked off a tree or squeezed from a fruit or vegetable. If they were, food manufacturers would tout their presence as further evidence of the actually natural composition of their food. But they don’t. I think you can guess why.
Now, you may be wondering, “so what?” You may be thinking, “I don’t care that my natural flavors are created in a lab – a lot of perfectly good ingredients are created in labs – like a lot of protein powders – and they go through stringent testing to ensure they’re suitable for human consumption. So why should I worry?”
Contrary to a lot of sensationalist articles out there, I’m not saying you should worry. I’m not saying ‘natural flavors’ will kill you or that they will contribute to the slow build-up of ‘toxins’ in your system that will eventually lead to your untimely demise. What I’m saying is that they’re not necessary natural in the way you and I probably understand the term and it’s important to know this. I don’t want you to focus on worrying. Here’s what I want you to focus on instead:
Manufacturers use ‘natural flavors’ primarily for three reasons:
1. To hide ingredients that you probably wouldn’t be comfortable consuming
2. To hide secret recipes by not disclosing their ‘natural’ flavor blends
3. To give artificially-flavored food the aura of being ‘natural.’ In other words, to imbue artificially-flavored products with a sense of them being natural – which a lot of people then go on to read as healthy.
Out of the above three reasons, it’s the first and third that are most common and this is my point of contention with their usage. This is what makes me mad:
When I buy food, I always read the labels. I want to KNOW what’s in the foods I buy. I don’t want any ingredients to be hidden behind ‘natural’ labels. Heck. Arsenic is ‘natural’ and a lot of naturally occurring ingredients in nature are things I would never want to eat.
Most importantly though, and this is where the third reason above comes in, I don’t like being manipulated. I want to judge for myself whether something is or is not a version of ‘natural’ that I want to be consuming. I don’t like reading a label that says ‘natural flavors’ in an attempt to persuade me that the item in question is better than an item that actually lists its ingredients – however natural or artificial these may be.
Being an informed consumer is important, paying attention to ingredients labels is crucial, and being able to read between the lines – and behind the BS – is imperative. People shouldn’t be misdirected when they read labels; their desire to know what they’re eating shouldn’t be silenced by marketers who slam empty claim labels on their packaging in an attempt to paint their products with a ‘natural’ brush. If a product uses castoreum or bug slime, I want to know that.
Of course, the ‘paleo’ amongst you are probably thinking this whole discussing is pointless.
“Just avoid all processed foods – that way you avoid all artificial and pseudo-natural flavorings!” To this I say, sure, in an ideal case scenario, we’d all be eating one-ingredient foods. But before choosing this as our way forward, I think it’s important to educate ourselves on what’s what and choose what we choose out of choice and knowledge instead of just fear that we HAVE to eat a one-ingredient diet ‘or else…’
Be critical. Always. Be critical. Ask questions. Be CURIOUS about the food you buy. Don’t make assumptions or let anyone’s usage of ‘natural’ labels guide your thinking about a particular product. Don’t buy one product instead of another just because one of them says ‘natural flavors’ and the other one actually lists them. In a way, this ties to my discussion of protein powders ‘for women.’
The point is to actually READ the label and always strive for MORE: more education, more understanding, and more knowledge.