The word "natural" conjures up visions of fresh fruit and veggies picked at their peak in an organically grown garden or perhaps chickens that have scratched in the dirt for their food and laid sunny golden yoked eggs....at least for me it does. Unfortunately natural doesn't mean the same thing to everyone. Letting a chicken out of her cage for a few minutes a day and calling the egg or meat "natural", isn't exactly what I'd deem natural....but some companies apparently do.
So I'm going to break down the little phrase "natural flavors" to be sure we're all on the same page.
We've seen it on labels, even on organic products, but what does it really mean?
Let's start with the most boring and difficult to read definition according to the US Code of Federal Regulations. BEAR WITH ME!
Natural Flavors - “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)
So let’s go with English here…basically it's some form of plant or animal by-product that has been processed so heavily that it can NO LONGER be listed on labels as food….Hmmmm.....let that soak in for a minute.....
So why are these extra flavors added to foods?
When food is overly processed the taste disappears. Artificial and natural flavors try and replace what food processing and pasteurizing removes. They can also help food taste fresh even when it's not....another pause and let sink in moment.....! It can also create an appealing smell that will drive the consumer to eat the product. And the kicker is right here - it can create a more concentrated short-lived flavor that will leave us wanting MORE and MORE causing us to eat more than we need and to keep buying the product over and over…this is addiction…and a very good deal for the food industry……and a terrible deal for us and our health!
An example of this is orange juice. Juice is made year round from all different varieties of oranges and all over the world. The taste of these varieties can be different from one another - it's still an orange it just tastes a little different...we all understand this. But when a customer buys a certain brand of orange juice they expect it to taste the same every time! The manufacturers are in trouble if the juice doesn't taste the same from one carton to another simply because of the variety of oranges.
Enter artificial and natural flavors. A little faux flavor added to the juice to ensure the juice tastes the same carton after carton, year after year.
So, what ARE these natural flavors?
I don't want anyone to hurl here but in my research I found some startling information concerning a natural flavor commonly used in vanilla extract, dairy products and other baked foods. Castoreum extract is a secretion from the anal glands and castor sacs which the beaver uses to mark their territorial claims. Castoreum extract possesses a warm, sweet odor and may be used as a stand-in for vanilla extract along with in many dairy products and baked goods. It's been used for over 80 years in perfumery and in food like candies, drinks and puddings. YUM! (insert sarcasm).
The real bad news here is that we don't really know when castoreum or another "flavor" from some unmentionable source is being consumed because like fragrances, they don't have to be individually listed.
So what about the safety in eating them? If you can get past the beaver example....I know right now you're not tempted and will more than likely walk right on by…. but one day, tomorrow maybe, when you're shopping at Target and you’re hungry and you see that little word on a cookie or granola bar or salad dressing "artificial flavors” or "natural flavors" you may ask, what's the harm?
Well there's truth in that - what's the harm? Because there is usually only a very small amount of chemical flavoring in each food or lip product it probably won't post a giant health risk.
BUT there are greater concerns and that is the accumulative effect these flavors can do over time. Many of the chemicals are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration which is a scary thought. Also, many of the chemicals that make up natural flavors fall under a category called “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS. An estimated 3,000 chemical food additives are in this category, yet this does not mean that these chemicals have been widely studied and approved by the FDA. Food companies do not need to disclose the ingredients of a natural flavor if all of the ingredients, which can be up to 100 in one flavor, fall into the GRAS category. And then to top it all off you may have a food allergy and it's not listed because it's been hidden in the natural flavors category. This is a bad deal if you're allergic to something that's not listed.
So you might say, natural flavors HAVE to be better for me than artificial, right? Unfortunately, just because it says “natural” doesn’t mean it’s any better. Artificial Flavors are entirely man made and natural flavors are derived from natural sources so in comparing the two it would seem as though natural would be the way to go, right?
Both natural and artificial flavors are synthesized in laboratories, but artificial flavors come from petroleum and other inedible substances, while “natural flavor” can refer to anything that comes from food (spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or anything fermented from those foods) although the jury is out on the safety of either! Some argue that artificial flavors are less toxic. Hard to say!
Sadly, natural flavors are largely unregulated, and their sources and processing can vary far and wide. In the end, artificial and natural flavors serve the same purpose - to add and enhance the taste that was likely lost in processing the food. And now that I told you about the beaver I have a hunch you're feeling like I am - those flavors are best left in the WILD building beaver dams than in my TUMMY!
So what are we to do? What I'd like to see is more transparent labeling! If we know what those flavors are and where they are derived we can make informed choices.
Just the other day I was looking at some peppermints from Nature's Sunshine Products that I still had left over - they sadly no longer sell them...but on the ingredient list it said "natural flavors and then in brackets it described exactly what those natural flavors were (peppermint oil)". I appreciated that and we need more of that kind of transparency. Lobbying for it might not be a bad idea.
And of course, I would suggest sticking to a diet of whole foods and products where ALL the ingredients are listed when you can because only then will you be sure the flavor didn't originate in a lab or from a beaver!