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Are natural flavors healthy? Do you feel good when you look at the ingredients in a food or beverage and see it’s flavored naturally? After all, if it comes from nature it’s got to be better for you. Right? Not necessarily.
First, let’s see what the FDA defines a natural flavor is. Be prepared – it’s a mouthful. According to the code of federal regulations:
Natural Flavor Definition:
“A natural flavor comes from 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.”
This definition leaves a lot of latitude for what can be called “natural” from a flavoring standpoint. Side note: maybe they could have shortened that definition a little too. It’s a little too much of it!
Here’s the kicker. Both synthetic and natural flavorings for foods and beverages are made or manipulated by chemists in a laboratory. If these highly-paid chemists are making natural flavors, they combine natural ingredients together to create a “natural” flavor whereas they work with synthetic chemicals to make artificial flavorings.
Natural flavors do come from natural sources, either plant or animal in origin, but they’re heavily manipulated in the laboratory to create the final flavor that goes in foods and beverages.
To make a single natural flavoring, flavoring chemists use hundreds of different ingredients extracted from plants, spices or animals. They’re looking for just the right combination of ingredients that will “wow” your taste buds and keep you coming back for more. That’s what sells products.
It’s not as simple as extracting the flavor from strawberries to make a natural strawberry flavoring. It’s flavor chemists scratching their heads trying to figure out what combination of hundreds of natural ingredients they can put together to make one of their products taste like strawberries.
Does Apple Flavoring Come From Apples? Don’t Count on It
It gets even trickier. A natural flavoring doesn’t even have to come from the source it’s named after. For example, natural apple flavoring may not come from an apple at all. It may simply be a combination of chemicals extracted from plants or animals that are mixed together to create an apple flavor.
As mentioned, natural flavorings don’t just come from plant sources. They come from animal sources as well, so they’re not vegetarian or vegan-approved. Here’s a not so pleasant example:
One “natural” ingredient used to flavor foods and as well as in the perfume industry is called castoreum. This is an oily, yellow chemical that comes from the anal sacs of beavers. When beavers are trapped for their fur by hunters, the hunters can also sell the castoreum to be used in products.
When you read a packaged product has “natural flavorings,” it may very well contain castoreum. Castoreum is used in some natural vanilla, strawberry and raspberry flavorings including those used to make ice cream. So much for natural flavors coming from pristine plants growing in a field or in the forest. And what about the poor beaver?
Another example of how not so appetizing things can end up in processed foods is L-cysteine. L-cysteine is an amino acid used to condition bread dough. Where does it come from? Some of it is produced by microbial fermentation but it also comes from duck feathers. In fact, several popular fast food restaurants use L-cysteine from duck feathers in their buns, tortillas and pastries.
Monosodium Glutamate and Natural Flavors
Some people experience reactions to monosodium glutamate or MSG and try to avoid this flavoring ingredient. Since the FDA stipulates that MSG has to be listed on the label of products that contain it, food manufacturers get around the issue by substituting similar ingredients that can combine with other ingredients in the product to form monosodium glutamate. So you may be getting MSG when you buy packaged products with natural flavors.
The reality is manufacturers don’t have to list what’s in the natural flavorings they’re adding to products you buy at the grocery store, and even if they did, you probably wouldn’t stick around to read it the list would be so long.
Are Natural Flavors Healthy?
Are natural flavors healthy? They’re natural but that doesn’t necessarily make them healthy. Once you start mixing together hundreds of different chemicals, even natural ones, there’s the risk for problems. Then there’s the question of whether natural flavorings are contributing to the rise in food allergies.
Simpler is usually better when it comes to keeping your body healthy. That’s why it’s ultimately better for you to buy whole, unprocessed foods that are truly flavored by nature rather than a “natural flavorings” dreamed up by chemists in a laboratory. Wouldn’t you agree?
The problem is flavor chemists can make products with artificial and natural flavors taste better than the real thing using their clever chemical tactics. That makes us want more, especially kids. Combine “souped up” natural flavors with sugar and kids will keep running back for more. Then they’ll begin to crave the flavor of altered foods instead of appreciating the natural taste of whole fruits and vegetables. Start them out right with lots of unprocessed foods.
Want strawberry flavoring? Well, why not enjoy a bowl of strawberries rather than buying a strawberry flavored pastry or cookie?
Even those individual fruit cups you buy at the grocery store have natural flavorings added. Think whole foods and less packaged foods and you won’t have to deal with secretions from beaver’s anal glands or duck feathers.
Huffington Post. “A Natural And Artificial Flavoring Factory: Behind The Scenes Of Givaudan”
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food”