There’s a reason the term is so ambiguous. While “natural flavors” sounds like a promisingly healthy ingredient, a closer look at what’s actually beneath the umbrella term reveals it may not be.
Think about it: If the ingredient was really just a simple and healthy flavoring (say, fruit juice or honey), wouldn’t the label just name the actual food instead?
The Food and Drug Administration requires that all ingredients listed under “natural flavors” on an ingredient label must be derived from “real food.” However, “real food” is an umbrella term in itself. In fact, there are over 2,500 ingredient combinations that classify as “natural flavors” — leaving the details behind the term in the dark for consumers, food testers, and the FDA alike. The only people who really know what goes into the natural flavors used in so many of our favorite foods are the manufacturers themselves.
But are the ingredients even really natural? Essentially, for a company to use the term “natural flavors,” the combination of ingredients used must solely come from plants and animals. However, a single “natural flavor” can comprise over 50 ingredients — some of which can include unnatural additions such as preservatives and emulsifiers. These additives to the otherwise natural methods of flavoring food and drink are often synthetic and, inherently, unnatural.
Food and beverage companies often get away with sneaking chemicals and preservatives into otherwise “clean” and organic foods simply by pairing them with other natural ingredients and deeming them “natural flavors.”
Don’t panic, though: This might not be such a tragic discovery. According to food scientist Dhyaneshwar B. Chawan, PhD, president of the food research company SRIM Enterprises, we should be thankful these synthetic additives are involved. They have little to no real adverse effects on our health and serve to keep the natural foods used in manufacture fresh and safe for consumption.
However, the time for hiding is over. Why sneak additives into products under blanket labels such as “natural flavors”? Food companies are beginning to get more honest and real about what’s going into their food. In fact, Chawan agrees, “consumers are demanding it.”
Some companies, such as Spindrift Seltzer, are realizing the fallacy of “natural flavors” and making changes. Spindrift CEO and founder Bill Creelman reported to Well + Good that he tried to get to the bottom of what “natural flavors” were being used in his company’s drinks. “When I asked our supplier, no one would tell me,” he said. It was time to make a change. His company began using 100 percent fruit extracts, rather than crafty combinations of mysterious ingredients.
Hopefully, more brands will soon follow suit.
Find out why McDonald’s fries have over 20 ingredients here.