If you turn around the package of a seemingly healthy snack, there’s a good chance you come across “natural flavors” on the ingredients list. This might sound innocuous enough, especially if it’s hidden among a long list of ingredients, some of which are much harder to pronounce. However, natural flavors might not be as straightforward as we want to believe. According to the FDA, a natural flavor can include:
“…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 of similar plant material, meat, 15 seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”
Seeing unspecified natural flavors on an ingredient list certainly raises some concern as to why the company didn’t want to disclose the components. Perhaps because the list would be too long to fit on the label? Or because it might sound a bit more unnatural? If so, we’d rather go without them.
Also, if a more specific natural flavor is listed—such as “natural raspberry flavor”—this descriptor does not necessarily have anything to do with the true source. If they used freeze-dried raspberries, the company would most likely just disclose that on the label. Nutritionist Brenda Gregory told us, “I generally recommend avoiding anything that lists unspecified natural flavoring because you don’t really know what’s in it.”
So any given natural flavor could include hundreds of different plant-and animal-based compounds. Once synthesized and categorized as a natural flavor, it’s next to impossible to track down how the plants were raised and/or how the animals were treated that went into the production of the flavor.
“The problem is not the source of the natural flavor but rather the extraction/emulsification processes, which often use synthetic solvents like propylene glycol (used to create plastics) and hexane (a component in glues, gasoline, and industrial cleaning supplies),” Gregory says. “Often, potentially carcinogenic synthetic preservatives like BHA/BHT are also used. The FDA defines these compounds as ‘incidental additives’ because they do not affect or play a role in the actual flavor. This means companies are not required to disclose this category of ingredients to consumers. In many cases, the majority of the constituents in a natural flavor are comprised of synthetic solvents and preservatives.”
In short, both artificial and natural flavors are usually processed in a lab. They only differ in the origins of their flavor chemicals: natural flavors are derived from edible sources of plants and animals, while artificial flavors come from inedible sources. Surprisingly, natural flavors often contain more chemicals than artificial flavors. Like GMOs, food scientists can engineer both natural and artificial flavors so that we are left craving more of the foods that contain them. So, you might just find yourself wanting more of that flavored water or protein bar rather than feeling the satiation it promised.
Is just reading about natural flavors leaving you feel deceived and exhausted? Us, too. That’s why we just pass on packaged foods that contain these substances. In the spirit of feeding others as we wish to be fed, we’ve created the Performance Bar for like-minded health enthusiasts and athletes. With no more than six ingredients (all of which are clearly specified on the front of the package), you’ll know exactly what you’re putting in your body.
U.S. Government Accountability Office: https://www.gao.gov/
United States Department of Agriculture: https://www.ams.usda.gov/