Manufacturers Are Fooling You with the Term “Natural Flavors”

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hen you think of natural, a vision of green things, fresh air, sunshine, and all things healthy might come to mind. It’s a word with a positive connotation, so it’s no wonder manufacturers love placing this word on food and personal care products, often with a graphic of a tree or leaf.

They hope that people will look more favorably upon their product when they say those words. Plus, you’ll be more likely to toss it in your grocery cart!

The word natural may be in the ingredient list of packaged products too. If you look closely at the ingredients in some packaged foods, you’ll spot the term “natural flavors.”

Seeing that word might give you a good impression of that product, but as with most things, when you dig deeper, things aren’t always as they appear on the label. This includes natural flavors, a term you see on lots of packaged foods. Let’s look at how the FDA defines the term natural flavors:

“A natural flavor comes from 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.”

That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? It also gives manufacturers lots of latitude for what a natural flavor can be. For example, Yoplait uses carmine, a red dye made from crushed cochineal bugs to color its strawberry yogurt. Starbucks used to use carmine too, but they discontinued it after strong protests from its customers. Carmine may be distasteful, but it still qualifies as a natural flavoring.

Natural Flavorings Are Manipulated in a Laboratory

Synthetic flavorings are born from manmade chemicals designed in a laboratory. People have a natural mistrust of chemicals synthesized through unnatural means while they feel good about things that are harvested directly from nature.

However, natural flavorings are also manipulated in a laboratory. Although they come from ingredients in nature, including icky things like crushed bugs, scientists alter and combine ingredients to create natural flavorings.

In fact, a manufacturer might blend together tens or even hundreds of ingredients derived from plants and animals to make the natural flavoring that goes into packaged products.

For example, you might think that blueberry flavoring comes from blueberries and little else, but that’s not the case. A more likely scenario is flavor creators manipulate a number of natural chemicals to create a blueberry flavoring that tastes better than the real thing. That’s the goal, anyway! If they can hook you with something that tastes better, you’ll come back for more!

Watch Out if You’re Vegan

If you look on a package and see that something has strawberry flavoring, for example, don’t assume it contains any strawberry at all! In fact, the strawberry may come from a plant and animal sources that are cleverly formulated in a laboratory to taste like strawberry.

For example, manufacturers sometimes use a sticky chemical, called castoreum, which comes from the anal sacs of beavers to make some natural flavorings. One example is vanilla flavoring. If you eat a vegan diet, you might think strawberry flavoring is consistent with your vegan diet, but it might not be,

Even stranger is the fact that the cups of strawberries in the refrigerated section at some grocers may have natural flavors added to them. It’s a reminder to read the ingredients on everything you buy and be skeptical about flavorings, even natural ones. Also, be aware that restaurants may use products with natural flavorings, so you have to be careful when you dine out too.

Be Careful if You Have Food Allergies

Since natural flavorings can include a Hodge Podge of ingredients, there could be an allergen hiding in there. Manufacturers must list on the label the most common things people are allergic to such as nuts, soy, egg, milk, and fish, but less common ingredients that cause allergies, they don’t have to name. If you have a number of food allergies, it’s safest to not buy products that contain natural flavorings.

Are Natural Flavorings Healthy?

Natural flavorings are such a complex mix of different ingredients that you can’t generalize. Synthetic flavorings aren’t necessarily worse than natural ones. It depends on what’s in the flavoring. However, your body thrives when you give it whole, unprocessed foods and natural flavorings on the label is a surefire sign you’re looking at something highly processed.

The term natural flavorings is a way for manufacturers to “hide” lots of ingredients under one term and make the ingredient list shorter. Combine it with the word natural and you look more favorably upon such products.

Other Problems with Natural Flavorings

The reason manufacturers love natural flavorings is they’re cheap, but they’re also more flavorful than the real thing. Eat enough of them and you’ll crave the souped-up, processed version over the real thing, but there’s a big difference in how real strawberries and strawberry flavoring affect your body. Real strawberries contain vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and other healthy components. Strawberry flavoring contains who knows what?

The Bottom Line

Skip foods with natural flavorings and eat the real stuff in its whole, unaltered form. You know what you’re getting and you won’t train your taste buds to crave enhanced flavorings. You also won’t have to deal with crushed bugs and excretions from a beaver’s anal glands!

References:

  • Huffington Post. “A Natural And Artificial Flavoring Factory: Behind The Scenes Of Givaudan”
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food”
  • CompoundChem.com. “Natural vs. Man-Made Chemicals — Dispelling Misconceptions”
  • Food Safety News. “Attention, Allergy Sufferers: Beware of Natural Flavors”

I’m a family physician who believes in the power of lifestyle to transform health and prevent disease. Food is the best medicine!

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