Natural Flavors: Not so "Natural"
If you aim to eat a diet rich in nutrient-dense whole foods, then you probably take extra steps to avoid ingredients like food dyes, MSG, artificial flavors and preservatives. However, the term “natural flavor” found on a wide variety of organic, gluten-free, and all-natural packaged foods, typically doesn’t sound the alarm for most health-conscious consumers. After all, a natural flavor sounds like something natural, doesn’t it? Sadly, this is often not the case.
What "natural flavor" really means and why you should avoid it So if a natural flavor isn’t “natural” what the heck is it? That’s a good question. According to the Food and Drug Administration a natural flavor is classified as:
“...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.”
In plain English: a “natural flavor” is any type of flavor additive derived or altered from a natural plant or animal substance. Whereas “artificial flavors” are derived from petroleum products. They are both manufactured in labs to produce the same result: a flavor-enhancing additive that makes processed food taste better so we want to eat more (and buy more) of it. In other words: they make processed foods addictive. What’s even worse is the name “natural flavor” can be legally used as a catch-all for all types of toxic ingredients.
MSG disguised as natural flavor? One of the worst types of “natural flavors” on the market are naturally-occurring glutamate by-products—which is just another way of saying MSG. These chemical by-products are excitotoxins, a type of harmful chemical which tricks our brain into overeating while creating addiction. Ever wonder why you can’t just eat one all-natural cheese puff or one small serving of organic candy? Chances are you’ll see the term “natural flavor” on the ingredient list, which is often code for glutamate by-products. But food addiction is just one consequence of unknowingly consuming excitotoxins. These insidious ingredients have been linked to a myriad of health issues in human and animal studies, including neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, obesity, chronic pain and inflammation, headaches and migraines, retinal damage, brain lesions and hampering neurological development in children (no, thank you!!).
Natural flavor - A red flag
The single word “flavor” in an ingredient list is actually a recipe that may be comprised of upwards of 100 ingredients that may come from some surprising (and disgusting) sources. For example, you would expect that “natural apple flavor” is juice extracted from an apple. Unfortunately, that is wishful thinking as the apple flavor needs to be preserved and stabilized with chemical agents added to help it mix into the product such as propylene glycol, BHT, BHA, and polysorbate 80. Castoreum, a “natural flavor” that tastes like strawberry and vanilla, found in ice creams, puddings, and other desserts comes from the castor sac of beavers. What is a castor sac? Prepare yourself...it's located on a beaver’s bottom. This sac stores the spray they use to mark their territories and is usually mixed with anal gland secretions and urine. Since these substances come from nature, they can be hidden under the label “natural flavor”.
How can you know what “natural flavor” is in your food?
Unfortunately, you can’t. The FDA doesn’t require food labels to say what’s in their “natural flavors” unless the ingredients include a common allergen like milk, egg, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, or soy. In that case they must put a disclaimer below the ingredient list. However, if you’re allergic or sensitive to another type of food like seeds, red meat, or anything else, the only way to know is to contact the manufacturer directly. The good news is, some more transparent natural food companies are now listing what’s in their flavor blend next to the term “natural flavor”, so you can always check the label for that. And sometimes the term is innocent in the case of essential oils used for flavor, you just can’t count on it with most food products. As always, the best advice is to stay educated and to use commonsense. If an ingredient list says “natural flavor” look for an alternative and/or call the manufacturer to inquire, or better yet just stick to whole fresh foods from transparent companies you trust.