What Does "Natural Flavor" Actually Mean on Food Labels?
That fruit essence in your sparkling water did actually come from fruit, but maybe not the way you think.
Natural flavor is listed as an ingredient on all kinds of products such as sodas, breakfast cereals, trendy bubbly waters, and even plant-based meat. But what exactly goes into making these natural flavorings? The term natural flavor or natural flavoring is defined by the FDA as a substance extracted, distilled, or similarly derived from natural sources like plants (fruits, herbs, veggies, barks, roots, etc.) or animals (meat, dairy products, eggs, etc.) via a method of heating, with its main function in food being flavoring not nutritional. Wait, what? This seemed so broad and confusing that I decided to find out more about how these "natural flavors" used in pretty much all of the food and drink products I enjoy on the regular are created. With the help of Marie Wright, chief global flavorist (yep, that's a job) for Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), some of the mystery behind natural flavors is put to bed.
What Is Flavor?
Before we get to the "natural flavor" ingredient makeup, it's important to know what makes a flavor. Each flavor we taste is made of molecules. "People get freaked out by the word 'chemical' or 'molecule' even though we're made of chemicals," Wright says. To get a better understanding, Wright says the next time you go to eat any natural product (such as a piece of fruit, vegetable, or meat) pinch your nose and put whatever it is in your mouth "so you're not tricking yourself" and chew a little bit before releasing your nose. Wright calls this the "magic whoosh." What happens here is flavor molecules are released and your brain makes the recognition that what you're eating, say, a strawberry. And that single strawberry is made up of around 250 to 300 molecules to make up that specific flavor composition.
What Are Natural Flavors?
Part chemist and part artist, Wright's job as a flavorist is to be able to translate the magic whoosh and be able to make your brain recognize that what you're eating or drinking does in fact taste like you think it should. This is where those molecules come into play and it gets a bit science-y (check out this Harvard study for the scientific breakdown). A strawberry soda, for example, has "strawberry essences in a strawberry flavor," not fresh strawberry juice, says Wright. Fresh strawberry juice doesn't have much of a shelf life, and the extract needs to be combined with other flavors (such as jasmine, vanilla, or raspberry) to make it intense enough to flavor a product, she adds. From there, an aromatic component (usually in the form of an extract like the vanilla you use to bake with) gets diluted (with oils, water, etc.) before going into your soda, yogurt, fruit snack, or whatever it may be.
Are Natural Flavors Safe?
When creating a natural flavor (Wright says most flavors fall into the natural flavor category), it's always created under regulation, and every ingredient used is recognized as safe. All the natural flavorings created by Wright's team and all other flavorists are regulated by Flavor Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA), which serves as the authority in evaluating safe and responsible use of flavorings. They also keep an eye on the state and legislative regulations that may require label changes.
While Wright says natural flavors are in no way harmful to your health, they also don't hold any nutritional value or health benefits and have no calories. So just because it says "natural" doesn't mean you're getting a healthy natural dose of flavor. The only real way to ensure the food and drink consumed is completely natural is to go directly to the source by consuming fresh ingredients and products that don't contain any natural or artificial flavorings.