I recently received this question from a client named Dora: “When a label says ‘Natural Flavors’ or ‘Artificial Flavors”, what does that mean? Why wouldn’t it just say what the flavoring is? Makes me suspicious.”
Dora, I think you’re quite right to be suspicious. “Natural flavors” is an umbrella term for ingredients that are added for flavoring rather than nutrition. “Natural flavors” are derived from actual foods*, whereas “artificial flavors” are built using chemicals.
Another way to look at it is that natural flavors are working backwards from food to a specific minute flavor, while artificial flavors are working forwards using chemicals to simulate a food’s flavor.
Whether natural or artificial flavors are used, processed foods are like science fair projects… merely simulations of Real Food. I’m not kidding about the science fair thing: scientists who develop these flavors are called “flavorists”!
All ingredients & flavorings used in foods are on the GRAS list, “generally recognized as safe”. This means that they have been deemed safe and will not cause you harm. Not immediately, at least.
But, just because a flavor is “natural”, doesn’t mean it doesn’t come from a terrifying place. This is one of the most disturbing examples:
You’d expect a raspberry-flavored product to have “raspberry” on the ingredient list, right? Or a vanilla yogurt to have vanilla listed? If not, they’re covered under “natural flavorings”. Most of the natural raspberry & vanilla flavorings come from…
A beaver’s butt.
I’m not kidding. “Castoreum” is an extract from a beaver’s anal gland. After you think “yuck!”, you might ponder “who the heck first realized that beaver butt juice tasted like raspberries!!!???”
How do you avoid eating Beaver Butt Juice? The only way to know what’s covered under “natural flavors” on a food label is to call the manufacturer. The most sure-fire way is to put crushed raspberries in your own homemade iced tea. Or pure vanilla extract in your own homemade yogurt.
That’s the scoop, Dora. I hope it helped!
*FYI: The definition of natural flavor under the Code of Federal Regulations 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” (21CFR101.22).