QuestionWhat are "natural flavors" anyway?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know what they’re talking about. Today, we wonder what the elusive nutritional term “natural flavors” really means.
With the growing obsession over eating “clean”—organic, gluten-free, additive-free foods that most us peasants will probably never be able to afford in our lifetimes—spotting the term “natural flavors” on the nutritional label of your favorite snack food might be comforting to some. But what’s really in a name?
Considering that “natural flavors” are literally everywhere (they’re the fourth most commonly listed ingredient according to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) database of over 80,000 different foods, the first three being salt, water, and sugar) what exactly do “natural flavors” entail? Is it a magical substance that “naturally” enhances the flavor of processed foods, or is there something more complicated at hand? We asked the experts.
Julie Garden-Robinson, PhD, RD, LRD
Professor, Food and Nutrition Specialist at North Dakota State University
When you look at the ingredient statement on a food product, you may think you are reading a chemistry textbook. Some of the items may be preservatives, while others provide flavor, color, thickening or some other function. Although nutritionists would prefer that people choose food based on nutrition, flavor is the number one reason people eat what they eat.
In the U.S., the manner in which flavors are listed and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is detailed in the Codes of Federal Regulations. As with any additive, in order for flavorings to be used in food products, the ingredient must be on the “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) list.
Foods with added flavorings get their characteristic taste from natural flavorings or from artificial flavorings. Natural flavors may be derived from spices, herbs, or substances that are extracted from fruits, vegetables, proteins (meat, seafood, etc.), dark, leaves or other naturally occurring plant or animal sources. Natural flavorings used in foods also may be derived from roasting, heating or fermenting foods. Artificial flavorings are made in a laboratory and are not derived from natural sources.
Both natural and artificial flavorings are considered safe. Regardless of the source, the ingredient statement must include the source of the flavor identified as “natural” or “artificial.” For example, if a food contains both natural raspberry flavor and artificial raspberry flavor, it will be labeled “natural and artificial raspberry flavor.”
A natural flavor is an essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis containing 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 fermented products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.
Flavor and Color Consultant at S&S Flavors Inc.
Natural flavors are naturally occurring chemicals commonly added to processed foods to make them more palatable. They hold up to production and cooking processes and are an effective way to recapture flavor otherwise lost during processing. These are typically harvested from plant or animal sources and, when used at very low levels, are able to reproduce specific flavors, so they mostly show up towards the bottom of product ingredient lists.
Different countries have different regulations governing their use. In the U.S. they are governed by Food & Drug Association’s Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 (CFR 21).
Flavors by the numbers
THE NUMBER OF chemicals not directly regulated by FDA but sanctioned for use by FEMA.
THE NUMBER OF flavoring chemicals or food additives “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA.
THE NUMBER OF distinct chemicals that a single flavor can be comprised of.
Jos C.M. Stelder
Executive Director of the International Organization of the Flavor Industry
The answer is not simple.
There is no such thing as a global “natural flavor.” To a large extent, the answer depends on the country or region that one is located. Countries have their own legislations and definitions in their regulation of food products. That is why the answer is more easy to provide by representatives in the specific region. If you’re interested in the U.S.A., the best source to refer to are the guidelines set by the Flavor & Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA).
Solvents, emulsifiers, preservatives, and flavor modifiers make up 80% t0 90% of a flavoring mixture.
Communications Director of the Flavor & Extract Manufacturers Association.
A “natural flavor” is derived from a natural source, most often using one of the three main natural processes: heat, extraction and fermentation. A single flavor is often a combination of different natural flavor ingredients, like the zest from an orange. Importantly, everything that imparts flavor in natural flavors is required by FDA regulations to be derived from natural sources.
Flavor consultant, member of the Society of Flavor Chemists
Literally and technically, natural flavors include any ingredient derived or extracted from a natural source intended to flavor a product. Examples include strawberry juice concentrate or peppermint oil. This is opposed to a chemical that is synthesized in a lab or factory, or a natural extract that is used for color.
ILLUSTRATION: Julia Goldman