Our taste buds are not complicated. We are easily satisfied with the best. The problem is the best-tasting food is not necessarily the stuff we should be eating, no matter how many natural flavors it contains. The food industry has upgraded fast food and hot dogs, chips and doughnuts, crackers and dips to addictive deliciousness.

From time to time, when the health awareness bell sounds the alarm, we refer to the label. Reading the words ‘natural flavors’ has an instant soothing effect. As we sigh with relief, we do not dig further into that bag of naturally flavored tortillas to ask ourselves: What exactly are natural flavors?

What are Natural Flavors?

Why Use Natural Flavors at All?

First, we need to understand why people need flavoring at all. Don’t look at your taste buds for the answer. They are not the only tool by which flavor triggers our appetite. How a food tastes is 90 percent determined by our sense of smell.

While our taste buds only deal in the five universally recognized basic tastes- sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami, the number of food smells stretches far and wide.

The thing about the human nose is that it can be easily duped. You might believe you are enjoying a fresh, just out of the oven blueberry muffin when you’re actually just experiencing the best of the pasteurization process.

Natural Flavors versus Artificial Flavors

Tomatoes in a laboratory Natural flavors

In this case, the principle of defining something by its opposite is not applicable. It turns out that natural flavors may not be so different from their chemical-laden counterpart, namely artificial flavors.

One major distinction is that natural flavors must be derived from plant or animal material, whereas artificial flavoring is produced in a lab. According to the US Code of Federal Regulations, natural flavoring is defined as:

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.’

Let’s deconstruct the phrasing. So the main difference between natural and artificial flavoring is based more on the process of making the flavor than on the substances present in the food.

Natural flavors do come from an ingredient found in nature, only to be afterward filtered through a series of chemical processes, like purification and extraction. In other words, natural flavors are called ‘natural’ only because the original source of the additive is not man-made.

If it’s hard to keep track so far, brace yourselves for more. After all, we are talking about complex mixtures that contain anywhere from 50 to 100 ingredients. Not all of them as natural and innocent as you might think.

Most flavors represent a mix of aroma compounds, the raw materials flavorists (the scientists behind the scene) then juggle with in a creative process similar to what old alchemists were cooking in search of the philosopher’s stone.

‘Incidental additives’ in the natural flavor recipe

Man shopping in the supermarket Natural Flavors

Sometimes, you’ll find solvent, preservatives, emulsifiers, and modifiers on the label. Or not. Going under the name ‘incidental additives’, which means they don’t have to appear in print if the manufacturer chooses so, additives make up to 90 percent of the volume of the flavoring combo.

For example, orange juice is one item to contain both natural and artificial flavors. Manufacturers will add mock flavor to juice after packaging it, just for the aesthetical purpose of it.

In the end, costs also have a word to say about which kind of flavoring, natural or artificial, is going into the ingredient. The food manufacturer will almost always prefer the more cost-efficient hustle-free artificial flavor. Still, taking into consideration consumers have grown somewhat of a health consciousness and demand the natural alternative, the food maker will almost always comply.

Are natural flavors harmful to your health?

That doesn’t mean the food maker has a very clean record of transparency. The food industry has gained a reputation for being reluctant in informing its consumers about the source of their flavors, especially if animal by-products were used in the mix.

This translates into ingredients that can pretty much include anything, even common allergens that, ingested by someone with a record of severe allergies, can turn a taste feast into a trip to the hospital. If this happens, the culprit is most likely something under the umbrella term of ‘natural flavors’. If you read that on a label and you have sensibilities to certain allergens, contact the manufacturer and ask about it.

Another example is the natural add-ins whose whole purpose is to turn food into a mouthwatering taste trap. On your first bite, you will experience a short-lived but highly intense flavor. That’s the prelude shot, and you’ll want more.

As conspiratorial as it might sound, one of the goals of today’s food industry really seems to be to boil your food craving to addiction levels.

Putting It All Together

Bottom line. What are natural flavors again? They’re on the same coin with artificial ones, only on the other side. Either to mask the true age of not such a fresh product or to lend a food product a bolder, more appealing taste than its natural counterpart, ingredients of the packaging and processed food industry will always be flavored.

So be a seasoned consumer yourself, and just stick to whole foods while you still can.

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