What 'Natural Flavors' Actually Means In Your Food

"Natural flavors" is the fourth most common ingredient listed on food labels, behind water, sugar, and salt, but what does it actually mean? The FDA outlines that natural flavors consist of anything that's extracted from roasting or heating, or breaking down a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or other plant material, meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products, and fermented products. The main function of the extraction must be to add flavor, not nutritive value.

However, the term "natural" is not strictly defined by the FDA, other than the ingredients under the umbrella must be derived from a natural source, as opposed to synthetic, but other than that, it can mean almost anything. Further, as long as it comes from any of the above sources, manufacturers do not have to list any chemical mixtures that contribute to the natural flavoring. They are only required to list the specific flavoring if the source is a common allergen such as gluten. Ultimately, "natural flavors" are little more than a marketing term. And manufacturers are willing to spend more to process natural ingredients as opposed to producing synthetic ones because they know many consumers will opt for or pay more for the product. 

Issues with the murky meaning

The assumption that "natural flavors" are healthier than their artificial counterparts is an illusion. There is no difference in nutrition between a natural flavor and an artificial flavor — both indicate that flavor, derived from something that was once natural or synthetic, was added.

One of the dangers of the label is that those with food allergies or sensitivities outside of the big eight that are required to be listed by the FDA may be unknowingly consuming something they must avoid. For example, someone with a corn or sesame allergy has no way of knowing if the offending substance is in the product. And those that are simply looking to avoid chemicals or additives in their diet are also left in the dark.

There is pushback to the lack of regulation surrounding the natural flavors label, particularly surrounding children's exposure to chemicals, and there may be more of a formal federal definition in the future. However, for now, there's little other option than to reach out to the manufacturer for clarification.