You may have seen the term "natural flavors" on ingredients lists. These are flavoring agents that food manufacturers add to their products to enhance the taste.

However, this term can be pretty confusing and even misleading.

This article takes a detailed look at what natural flavors are, how they compare to artificial flavors and potential health concerns.

According to the US FDA's Code of Federal Regulations, natural flavors are created from substances extracted from these plant or animal sources:

  • Spices
  • Fruit or fruit juice
  • Vegetables or vegetable juice
  • Edible yeast, herbs, bark, buds, root leaves or plant material
  • Dairy products, including fermented products
  • Meat, poultry or seafood
  • Eggs

These flavors can be obtained by heating or roasting the animal or plant material.

In addition, manufacturers are increasingly using enzymes to extract flavor compounds from plant sources to help meet the demand for natural flavors (1).

Natural flavors are meant to enhance flavor, not necessarily to contribute nutritional value to a food or beverage.

These flavorings are extremely common in foods and beverages.

In fact, it has been reported that the only items listed more frequently on ingredient lists of processed foods are salt, water and sugar.

Bottom Line: Natural flavors are extracted from plants and animals for the purpose of creating flavor enhancers to be used in processed foods.

Research has shown that when "natural" appears on food packaging, people tend to form positive opinions about the product, including how healthy it is (2).

However, since the FDA hasn't officially defined this term, it can be used to describe almost any type of food (3).

In the case of a natural flavor, the original source must be a plant or animal. By contrast, the original source of an artificial flavor is a man-made chemical.

Importantly, all flavors contain chemicals, whether they are natural or artificial. In fact, every substance in the world is composed of chemicals, including water.

Natural flavors are complex mixtures created by specially trained food chemists known as flavorists.

In addition to their original flavor source, these mixtures can contain more than 100 different chemicals, including preservatives, solvents and other substances. These are defined as "incidental additives."

However, food manufacturers aren't required to disclose whether these additives come from natural or synthetic sources. As long as the original flavoring source comes from plant or animal material, it is classified as a natural flavor.

What's more, because the term "natural" has no official definition, flavors sourced from genetically modified crops can also be labeled as natural (4).

Bottom Line: Even though the term "natural" has no formal definition, people often interpret it to mean healthy. Although natural and artificial flavors differ by source, both contain added chemicals.

There are hundreds of natural flavors created by food chemists. Here are a few that are commonly found in foods and beverages:

  • Amyl acetate: This compound can be distilled from bananas in order to provide banana-like flavor in baked goods.
  • Citral: Also known as geranial, citral is extracted from lemongrass, lemon, orange and pimento. It is used in citrus-flavored beverages and sweets.
  • Benzaldehyde: This chemical is extracted from almonds, cinnamon oil and other ingredients. It is frequently used to give foods an almond flavor and aroma.
  • Castoreum: A somewhat surprising and unsettling source, this slightly sweet substance is found in the anal secretions of beavers. It is sometimes used as a substitute for vanilla, although this is rare due to its high cost.

Other natural flavors include:

  • Linden ether: Honey flavor
  • Massoia lactone: Coconut flavor
  • Acetoin: Butter flavor

All of these flavors can also be produced using man-made chemicals created in a lab, in which case they would be listed as artificial flavors.

You may also have noticed that most of the time, ingredients labels indicate that the food is made with natural and artificial flavors.

Bottom Line: Hundreds of ingredients are classified as natural flavors. Using natural and artificial flavors together is also common.

It may seem healthier to choose foods that contain natural flavors and avoid those with artificial flavors.

However, in terms of chemical composition, the two are remarkably similar. The chemicals in a particular flavor may be naturally derived or synthetically created.

In fact, artificial flavors sometimes contain fewer chemicals than natural flavors. In addition, some food scientists have argued that artificial flavors are actually safer because they are produced under tightly controlled laboratory conditions.

Artificial flavors are also less expensive to produce, which makes them more appealing to food manufacturers.

In addition, people who are vegetarian or vegan may unknowingly be ingesting animal-derived natural flavors in processed foods.

Overall, natural flavors don't appear to be any healthier than artificial flavors.

Bottom Line: Despite their "natural" origins, natural flavors are very similar to artificial flavors. Artificial flavors may even have some advantages.

Before natural or artificial flavors can be added to food, they must be evaluated by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) Expert Panel to confirm that they meet safety standards (5).

Results of this evaluation are published and reported to the FDA. If the flavoring meets safety criteria, it can be added to the "Generally Recognized as Safe" list of substances that are exempt from further evaluation by the FDA.

In addition, most natural flavors determined to be safe through this program have also been reviewed by other international regulatory organizations, such as the European Food Safety Authority.

However, members of FEMA have also been criticized by nutrition experts and public interest groups for not disclosing safety data about natural flavors. In most cases, natural flavors appear safe for human consumption when consumed occasionally in processed foods.

However, given the number of chemicals that may be part of a natural flavor mixture, adverse reactions are always possible.

For people with food allergies or those who follow special diets, it's very important to investigate what substances a natural flavoring contains.

If you have allergies and want to dine out, request ingredients lists. Although restaurants aren't legally required to provide this information, many do so to attract and retain customers.

Bottom Line: Although natural flavorings must meet safety criteria, individual reactions may occur. People with allergies or those on special diets should be very cautious about consuming them.

The original source of natural flavors must be plant or animal material. However, natural flavors are highly processed and contain many chemical additives.

In fact, natural flavors aren't much different than artificial flavors in terms of chemical composition and health effects.

From a health and safety standpoint, your best bet is to avoid foods with natural or artificial flavors by choosing fresh, whole foods whenever possible.

Food manufacturers are only required to list flavors on ingredients lists, without revealing the original sources or chemical mixtures of these flavors.

To find out where the natural flavors in a food product come from and the chemicals they contain, contact the food company by phone or email to ask them directly.