You see the term, “Natural Flavors” on all kinds of food and drink packaging. It’s such a common ingredient that it is in nearly all food products these days. What does “Natural Flavors” actually mean? Why is it so vague? It sounds harmless enough, right? But when you start to think about it, it’s a little confusing. The very word “Natural” kind of suggests it came right out of the ground, or was picked ripe from a tree. The term almost suggests that you just juiced a healthy pile of vegetables.
Natural Flavors from the FDA
The official definition of “Natural Flavors” from the FDA is:
"The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means 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. Natural flavors, include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants listed in subpart A of part 582 of this chapter, and the substances listed in 172.510 of this chapter."
Confused? Natural flavors can be derived from plants or animals, and may be a complex combination of both. In other cases, the natural flavor could be something as simple as an essential oil. We really have no way of knowing if natural flavors are just a short step away from nature or quite complex; a combination of plants, animals, and dairy products.
The truth is that the FDA doesn’t actually require food manufacturers to list what the individual natural flavors actually are. So, it’s impossible to know exactly what these “Natural Flavors” might be without tracking down the manufacturer and asking them directly. If it’s your favorite snack, you may feel inclined to do that, and vegans and vegetarians may want to know if natural flavors include animal products. Most of us won’t have the time for such a detailed deep dive every time we see “Natural Flavors” on our food or drink label.
What’s the solution?
Natural flavors are found in processed foods. Processed foods are food and drink products that have been formulated at a factory. They must carry a Nutrition Facts label on the packaging to disclose the multiple ingredients and their amounts. On the other hand, a bag of carrots or broccoli is not a processed food and does not have to carry a Nutrition Facts label. Although, these days many will argue that they should because of all of the new GMO produce and the increasing complexity of pesticides used to grow them. However, that’s another topic for another time.
Should we stay away from processed foods? Ideally, yes. If you existed in a perfect world, you might be able to do that! Unfortunately, processed foods are pretty much an unavoidable occurrence for most Americans. Most of us go out to eat at restaurants, and no matter how healthy the eatery, we never have 100% control over what the chef uses.
Eating fresh foods (like carrots and broccoli) that are unprocessed and as close to their natural form is the best way to go.
There are some things we can do to avoid processed foods, or at least cut down on them. Instead of buying flavored drinks or water, use your own flavor. Squirt some apple cider vinegar into your sparkly water, or a bit of an orange. Instead of buying pre-flavored foods, add your own fresh fruit.
Try to eat food that is not processed, and as close to nature as possible. Eating food in the original form (think steamed carrots or some delicious sautéed kale) is the best way to go. Simple, fresh ingredients are better. That way you’ll know exactly what’s in your food and exactly what you are putting into your body. No matter what your diet is: vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, etc., it’s always best to have an honest and direct relationship with what you are putting into your body.