Are natural flavors food? When reading a list of ingredients, it’s pretty easy to skim right over “natural flavors.” It sounds so innocuous. It has the word “natural” and it’s just “flavor.” So how bad can it be?
Well, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the US does have a code of regulations that stipulates what can be used to create “natural flavors.” (You can read it here if you are so inclined https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=101.22)
The list includes: spices (although they may also be listed separately), fruit/fruit juice, vegetables/vegetable juice, dairy products (including fermented dairy like yogurt), meat, poultry, seafood or eggs.
I find it odd that poultry and seafood are listed separately from meat as they are all flesh. I did a quick search to try and find out what the FDA considers the difference. What I found was long lists of what the FDA does and doesn’t regulate and “safe handling” instructions for raw flesh products (my words so I didn’t have to type “meat, poultry and seafood” again).
Digging a little deeper I found this website: https://definitions.uslegal.com/m/meat/, (the following is a direct quote containing a quote):
“Regulations And Standards Under The Agricultural Marketing Act Of 1946 And The Egg Products Inspection Act; Part 54, Meats, Prepared Meats, And Meat Products (Grading, Certification, And Standards);Subpart A, Regulations; Definitions) the term Meat means “the edible part of the muscle of an animal, which is skeletal, or which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart, or in the esophagus, and which is intended for human food, with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and the portions of bone, skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels which normally accompany the muscle tissue and which are not separated from it in the process of dressing. This term does not include the muscle found in the lips, snout, or ears.””
I’m making the assumption that “meat” means the flesh, as defined above, of any mammal. But that is 100% an assumption on my part simply because they call out poultry and fish separately.
Now that we got that sorted, back to “natural flavors.”
This passage from the FDA site linked above was interesting to me: “Substances obtained by cutting, grinding, drying, pulping, or similar processing of tissues derived from fruit, vegetable, meat, fish, or poultry, e.g., powdered or granulated onions, garlic powder, and celery powder, are commonly understood by consumers to be food rather than flavor and shall be declared by their common or usual name.”
If I’m understanding correctly, if a whole food is part of the ingredients list it has to be called out individually. But if there is an extract, that can be bundled under “natural ingredients.”
Given that there are pages of information about natural flavors on the FDA website, you might be surprised to learn, as I was, that “natural flavor” doesn’t actually have a legal definition (learn more about that here https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/natural-flavors#section2). The only rule is that the flavor has to originally come from a plant or an animal, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t created in a lab. It only means that the chemical make up exists in nature.
In contrast, “artificial flavors” means the chemical make up was created to trick human taste buds into tasting a flavor that isn’t actually there.
But it’s not only artificial flavors that can fool the human brain. “Naturally” flavored watermelon candy tastes more like watermelon than an actual watermelon because of a compound from African violets (I wish I was making that up). It seems human taste buds are pretty easily fooled.
Are Natural Flavors Safe?
That is a valid question. You would think yes, since they are regulated by the FDA. But they aren’t really tested. The FDA designates everything under the “natural flavors” as GRAS (generally recognized as safe).
BUT there are no safety reviews for things labeled GRAS, they aren’t regulated and the manufactures get to decide what “safe” means. Here’s the kicker, the GRAS label also means that manufactures don’t even have to tell the FDA about a chemical as long as they (the manufacture) have decided it’s “safe.”
Are you feeling less then thrilled with the innocuous label “natural flavors” on food packaging? I know I am.
To answer the question I posed in the title of this post, Are Natural Flavors Food – My feeling is that they are not. “Food” should provide either energy in for form of calories or nutrition in the form of vitamins and minerals the human body needs to function. Real food, the way it comes out of the ground contains both. “Natural flavors” and “artificial flavors” contain neither.
How to Avoid Industry “Natural Flavors”
The easiest answer is stay away from processed and packaged food sources. Real food comes in amazing flavors that don’t require being pumped up to get you to enjoy them. Next best option, when you see “natural flavors” on an ingredients list, put it back on the shelf.
As a side note, if you are ethically vegan, you should always assume that “natural flavors” includes something derived from an animal. It might not be the case. But it could very well be.
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