You reach for a snack at the grocery store and quickly scan the box. It’s labeled as having “natural flavors,” meaning it must be healthier than an artificially flavored alternative…right? Not so fast. We make a lot of assumptions about food, largely influenced by societal norms, food trends and things we’ve colloquially accepted to be good for us—like anything with the word “natural” on it. Read on and you’ll never misread the term again.
You See This One Phrase All Over the Grocery Store—But Do You Know What It *Actually* Means?
What Does “natural Flavors” Really Mean?
The FDA defines natural flavors as those that get their flavor or aroma from naturally derived sources, like fruits, veggies, meat, seafood, spices, eggs, roots, yeast, dairy…you get the picture. Those natural flavorings can still be manipulated in a lab for the final product, just like artificial flavorings. Here’s the catch: There are plenty of unrestricted additional ingredients that can be used to make natural flavors in nonorganic foods, like preservatives and solvents. (Certified organic foods and flavorings are held to a much stricter standard.)
Food processors are legally required to list all their ingredients, but flavor manufacturers aren’t, meaning they can freely use emulsifiers and additives in natural flavors without disclosing it to the consumer—which makes naturally flavored foods a lot closer to artificially flavored ones than you might think. Flavors can be used to replace taste lost in processing or pasteurizing, to make foods taste fresh when they aren’t (like juice), to create a certain flavor or aroma to entice the eater or to make a fleeting flavor that the consumer will want more (and more) of.
“Natural flavor” on a label also doesn’t imply that the flavor of the product and the flavoring’s source match. For instance, if you’re noshing on watermelon-flavored gummies that are naturally flavored, it doesn’t mean the flavoring came from watermelon. Odds are researchers and developers simply analyzed the taste of fresh watermelon, then analyzed the molecules and compounds in the fruit to replicate them with natural substitutes. African violets have verdant leaves that are often used in watermelon flavoring, Bon Appetit reported. But it’s not all pretty flowers and fruits: Those same gummies—and many red-colored candies or flavorings—may also include cochineal extract, aka the dried blood of crushed cochineal beetles. Since beetles are insects, it falls under the “natural flavors” label…sorry.
Aren’t Artificial Flavors Bad?
Artificial flavors are derived from chemicals instead of natural sources. Although both natural and artificial flavors are synthesized in labs to get them just right, the difference is that artificial flavors are sourced from inedible materials (like um, petroleum). At the end of the day, natural and artificial flavors are pretty darn similar chemically and nutritionally, despite the latter’s pause-worthy sources.
How Can I Know Exactly What’s In That Packaged Food?
You…kinda can’t. Unless it’s made with a major allergen like peanuts or shellfish that requires a disclaimer under the ingredient list (although that’s not the same as the manufacturer listing every ingredient that went into its flavoring), it doesn’t need to go on the packaging. (So, if you’re allergic to something less common, like bananas, you’d have to contact the company directly to find out if the flavor is banana-free.)
Flavorings can be derived from natural substances that have nothing to do with the food they’re being used in, and the manufacturers who make them aren’t forced by the FDA to divulge their secrets. So, the only way to know exactly what’s in your meal is to make it yourself with raw ingredients.