Check the ingredient list of almost any prepared food, sparkling water, vitamin supplements, or anything else made for human consumption and you'll likely see the words "natural flavor" or "artificial flavor". If you read labels, you know they're everywhere.
There are a lot of questions about what these natural flavors actually are, and almost as much alarmist misinformation. The truth is that natural flavoring is a bit of a black box: it could be as simple as essential oil or fruit extract, or it could be an extremely complicated formula with up to 100 ingredients (the "natural beef flavor" found in McDonald's french fries contains everything from hydrolyzed wheat to hydrolyzed milk - a very complex recipe!).
There's increasing consumer concern about what's in these flavors and rightly so: any area with a lack of transparency merits more scrutiny. Not all natural flavors are created the same, and not all of them are created naturally.
We're here to demystify everything we can to tell you the truth about natural flavors.
We're going to tell you exactly what you need to know about natural flavors and bust a few common misconceptions (like "vanilla flavoring comes from beaver backsides") along the way, show you what you should and shouldn't worry about, and what's in the natural flavoring in our products that use it.
What does natural flavors mean per FDA?
The official FDA definition of natural flavor or natural flavoring which is universally followed is anything that comes from a:
- 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, fermentation products thereof (1)
In addition to the base flavors above, they may also contain other additives, like emulsifiers and solvents.
Organic flavoring vs. natural flavoring vs. artificial flavoring
Natural flavoring comes from the ingredients in the section above, but not necessarily from the ingredient it's supposed to taste like. For example, banana flavoring may come from bark or roots of a similar-tasting plant.
Artificial flavoring is derived from man-made materials, typically petroleum. While the sources are different, they may have exactly the same chemical composition as natural flavors. Both are developed in a lab.
Lest we scare you with the talk of "molecules" and "chemicals", keep in mind that everything is made up of chemicals: air, water, your body.
Organic flavorings are held to the strictest standards of all. They cannot contain synthetic solvents, carriers or artificial preservatives and must contain 95-100% organically grown base ingredients. (3)
Are flavorings safe?
All flavorings are developed by a group of highly trained flavorists who must undergo rigorous study and a 7-year apprenticeship before being certified by the Society of Flavor Chemists. (4) There are only around 500 flavorists worldwide.
Flavorists must only use compounds that have been vetted by a panel of scientific and medical experts including chemists, toxicologists, pharmacologists, medical doctors, pathologists, and statisticians who make up the Flavor Extract Manufacturers Associations (FEMA). (5)
FEMA has compiled a list of extensively tested compounds that are "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS). They must communicate these findings in scientific literature, to international scientific and regulatory bodies, and to the FDA. (6,7)
Ingredients not on this list are not permitted for use by the flavorists in either natural nor artificial flavors. It's also worth mentioning that flavorings are almost always less than 1% of any given product, and after heating and processing it can be as little as a few parts per million. (8)
Why do companies use natural flavoring?
There are a few reasons. On the more negative side, flavorings can sometimes used to make extremely processed foods more enticing, or even addictive. They can make the flavor of a substance many times more potent than it naturally would be: compare the cheesy taste of Cheetos to actual cheese, and apply that difference to the intense flavor of just about any processed food.
On the other hand, they can be used to make healthy foods more palatable to encourage consumption. Our supplements are a good example: we use fruit and botanical extracts (organic wherever possible, and pure extracts like peppermint in our oil-based liquids) to make strong-tasting vitamins like zinc more palatable, so they're easier to take every day.
We use our delicious organic cherry flavor in our B12 liquid, because it's a repeated-use product: if we used cherry puree we'd have to add a hefty dose of artificial preservatives to keep it from spoiling after the first use. The organic cherry flavor we use is a water-based organic Montmorency cherry extract.
The making of fruit flavors
Another example of why natural flavors are used: if actual passionfruit (a common vodka flavoring) were used for just one vodka company, flavorists would need to consume a quarter of the world's passionfruit supply!
Instead, flavorists might derive the similar taste to passionfruit from grapefruit. They'd then dilute it with water, glycerin, or alcohol, and add tropical notes from pineapples, cherries, and oranges. (9)
The process of extracting a fruit or botanical essence and adding it in small quantities is much more straightforward than other savory flavors.
Do strawberry and vanilla flavorings come from beaver anal glands?
This is one of the most persistent (and hilarious) rumors that has a tiny grain of truth to it, but is mostly false.
Many bloggers have made the assertion that "beaver butt juice" is used as a cheaper alternative to vanilla or strawberry and is found in just about everything from oatmeal to yogurt. That part couldn't be further from the truth.
Castoreum, which comes from the castor sacs of beavers (not the anal glands, although they're near them!), is a yellowish oily fluid that gets its herbal fragrance from the beaver's wild diet. It's been used in Europe since antiquity as a powerful medicine to treat everything from constipation to spider bites.
Unfortunately, its ubiquity decimated the European beaver population by the end of the middle ages. The settling of North America brought with it a fresh supply of beavers which were first used for making beaver hats, then eventually a resurgence of the use of castoreum not for medicine, but for perfumes.
It eventually found its way into flavorings in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was usually used at concentrations of less than 10 parts per million. By the 1980s, castoreum use dropped significantly. The reason? More demand for kosher flavorings, for which beaver extracts do not qualify.
Its use faded out of the food supply, decades before the blog hysteria even began. Although it was once popular for its unique flavor, it's rarely used in today's flavorings.(10)
Are natural flavors MSG?
Can natural flavors contain MSG? Yes. In general, are natural flavors MSG? Not likely. Can natural flavors contain MSG without disclosing it? No!
MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is an excitotoxin and form of salt that is commonly added to savory processed foods like soups and processed meats as a flavor enhancer. It also occurs naturally in some foods like tomatoes and cheeses.
Many people have reported adverse effects from MSG consumption like headaches, nausea, and chest pain, although no study has successfully replicated these effects. (11)
If MSG is added to food, in the natural flavoring or otherwise, it must be disclosed on the ingredient list or "contain" list. (12)
Can natural flavors contain allergens?
Yes and no. If a flavoring contains protein (the allergenic component) from one of the top 8 allergens (peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, dairy, wheat, soy, fish, or shellfish) they MUST declare it either on the ingredient list or in the "contains" list, per the FDA's Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act.
As of 2021, under the Under the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research Act of 2021 (FASTER Act), sesame has been declared a major allergen as well! It could previously be listed under natural flavorings or spices, but you'll now see it declared on all labels (many manufacturers will have already changed their labels to reflect this, but it's mandatory as of January 1, 2023).(13)
Why are natural flavors bad?
As you probably figured out if you read this far: there's not necessarily anything wrong with natural flavors. They've fallen victim to the internet rumor mill and, like fat in dairy products, they'll probably soon be banished from many ingredient labels.
If any evidence ever comes to light of their harm, we'll update our stance. Until then, it's just internet gossip and guessing.
Should you worry about natural flavors? The main concern is that they may encourage you to overeat unhealthy or processed foods that have been modified to become addictive.
The natural flavors themselves provide no nutrition benefit, but they aren't likely to cause harm, either. On top of that, they constitute less than 1% of any given product, at most.
If the hysteria around natural flavors has you worried, contact the manufacturer of any food containing them to ask about the source. But there are other ingredients that constitute a much higher percentage of processed food (like sugar!) that are of greater concern when consumed frequently.
Make at least 80% of your diet whole, unprocessed food, use supplements to fill the nutritional gaps in your diet, and don't sweat about the rest.
(1) “Section 101.22 Foods; labeling of spices, flavorings, colorings and chemical preservatives.”FDA Code of Regulations Title 21 https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=101.22
(2) “What is the difference between artificial and natural flavors?” Reineccius, G. Scientific American. July 29, 2002. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-the-difference-be-2002-07-29/
(4) The Society of Flavor Chemists. https://flavorchemists.com/
(5) “The Tastemakers” La Gorce, T. New Jersey Monthly. January 17, 2011. https://njmonthly.com/articles/eat-drink/the-tastemakers/
(6) “Flavor Safety: Myth vs. Fact” Mat. Flavor Facts. Flavor Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) June 25, 2015. https://www.femaflavor.org/flavor-safety-myth-vs-fact
(7) "How U.S. FDA's GRAS Notification Program Works" https://www.fda.gov/food/generally-recognized-safe-gras/how-us-fdas-gras-notification-program-works
(8) Under the conditions of intended use – New developments in the FEMA GRAS program and the safety assessment of flavor ingredients
John B. Hallagen, Richard L. Hall https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0278691508006443