You may have seen the term “natural flavors” on ingredient 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 around them.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Code of Federal Regulations, natural flavors are created from substances extracted from these plant or animal sources (1):
- 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
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 (
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, research suggests they are the fourth most common ingredient on food labels (
Natural flavors are extracted from plants and animals to create flavor enhancers that are 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 (
However, since the FDA hasn’t officially defined this term, it can be used to describe almost any type of food (
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 synthetic chemical (5).
Importantly, all flavors contain chemicals, whether they are natural or artificial. In fact, every substance in the world, including water, is composed of chemicals.
Natural flavors are complex mixtures created by specially trained food chemists known as flavorists.
However, members of the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA), a trade group that evaluates the safety of flavor additives in the United States, have been criticized by nutrition experts and public interest groups for not disclosing safety data on 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 may be possible (
For people who have food allergies or follow special diets, it’s very important to investigate what substances a natural flavoring contains.
If you have allergies and want to dine out, ask for ingredients lists. Although restaurants aren’t legally required to provide this information, many do so to attract and retain customers.
Although natural flavorings must meet safety requirements, individual reactions may occur. People who have allergies or follow special diets should be very cautious about consuming them.
The original source of natural flavors must be plant or animal material. However, natural flavors can be highly processed and contain many chemical additives.
In fact, in some cases natural flavors aren’t much different from artificial flavors in terms of chemical composition and health effects.
From a health and safety standpoint, try to focus on choosing fresh or frozen whole foods whenever possible.
Food manufacturers are only required to list flavors on ingredients lists, not to reveal the original sources or chemical mixtures of these flavors.
To find out where the natural flavors in a food product come from and what chemicals they contain, you can contact the food company by phone or email to ask them directly.
According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization, these mixtures can contain more than 100 different chemicals in addition to their original flavor source, including preservatives, solvents, and other substances (10, 11).
These are defined as “incidental additives” (10, 11).
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’s 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 (
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 these flavors can also be produced using lab-created chemicals, 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.
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 synthetic.
In fact, artificial flavors sometimes contain fewer chemicals than natural flavors.
In addition, some advocacy groups, such as the American Council on Science and Health, 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.
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 FEMA Expert Panel to confirm that they meet safety standards (
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.
Although some public interest groups have criticized FEMA for not disclosing information on the safety of natural flavors, most of these flavors are considered safe when consumed in moderation (
Still, because natural flavor mixtures often contain many different chemicals, some people may experience adverse reactions.
For this reason, it’s very important to be aware of the ingredients in the natural flavors you consume, especially if you have any food allergies or dietary restrictions.