Sunday, May 26, 2024

Just How Natural Are Natural Flavors, Anyway?


As California’s ‘Skittles Ban’ moves to restrict a number of controversial ingredients including brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, propylparaben, and red dye No. 3 — commonly found in colored candies, we take a look at the seemingly harmless world of natural flavor ingredients.

The term “natural flavor” has become ubiquitous on the ingredient lists of food and beverage products alike. Here’s what the term actually means.

Natural flavors are the fourth most common ingredient listed on labels — surpassed by salt, water, and sugar, according to an article published in the National Library of Medicine.

Manufacturers add flavorings to foods and drinks in order to enhance flavors. For example, they can help replace any flavoring that’s lost during the pasteurization process of, say, orange juice. Or they can be used to give a packaged product a distinctive taste or smell, such as with bubble gum and canned fruits.

But what exactly are natural flavorings? And are they healthy?

What are natural flavors?

According to the Food and Drug Administration, a natural flavor can be created from either a plant or animal source, such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, or dairy products.

In regard to the former, the flavoring can be derived from spice, fruit or fruit juice, bark, root, leaf, and vegetable or vegetable juice, among others. 

One might assume that “natural flavors” are natural. After all, that’s what the term suggests. 

“We like to say that natural flavors don’t grow on trees, but the general assumption is that they do,” explains Dr. Lior Lewensztain.

Dr. Lewensztain is the founder and CEO of That’s It. The healthy fruit bar and snack company has been churning out plant-based goodies since 2012. The products are all free from the top 12 allergens and feature six real ingredients or less. They’re also free from natural or artificial flavors, sugar alcohols, or artificial colors.

In a recent study, the brand — in conjunction with the marketing research platform Suzy — found that 70 percent of Americans believe that the additives come from nature. But the reality is, similar to artificial flavors, they’re actually synthesized in a lab.

“We want people to know that there’s a big difference between your food coming from nature and your food coming from a food scientist, so we’ve been relieved to see the conversation around natural flavors becoming more mainstream,” says Dr. Lewensztain. 

“This sneaky ingredient has flown under the radar of even the most conscientious consumers for decades,” he adds. “But now is the time to demand greater transparency from food manufacturers.”

Are natural flavors healthy?

When it comes to additives, natural flavorings are to food what fragrances are to the cosmetics industry.

The flavor and fragrance market is certainly booming. Dominated by companies like Symrise and Givaudan, the industry rakes in about $24 billion in sales each year, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Natural flavorings do differ from their synthetic or artificial counterparts in that they’re not created from chemical sources like petroleum. But they can still contain synthetic chemical additives, including flavor enhancers, solvents, and preservatives. After a flavor is extracted from a plant or animal material, it’s then distilled, fermented, or manipulated in a lab with other ingredients to produce the desired effect.

store shelves filled with potato chips
Foods containing natural flavorings are often highly processed. | Photo by Nothing Ahead via Pexels

Plus, foods that contain natural flavorings are often highly processed and contain high levels of sugar and sodium, among others. They may also not be suitable for vegans and vegetarians, due to the fact that companies are not required to disclose whether a natural flavoring was derived from a plant or an animal material.

So, what’s the verdict? Are natural flavorings healthier than artificial ones? Not really, says Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Consumer Reports. In fact, they’re not really that different.

“There’s no real difference between natural and artificial flavors in terms of nutrition,” he explains.

“Thanks to its name, natural flavors is an ingredient that many believe are healthy,” says Lauren Manaker, MS. RDN, LD, CLEC, CPT. “But opting for this ingredient may not be any better for you than those that lean on synthetic flavors.” 

When it comes to making healthy foods sans all the unnatural stuff, That’s It prefers to keep things simple. “We make fruit snacks from actual fruit,” says Lewensztain. “We invite our competitors to start doing the same.”

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