The term “natural flavors” can be spotted in the ingredients for pretty much any packaged food nowadays, but what does this vague term really mean? Well, the truth about natural flavors is a little more complicated than the FDA will have you believe. According to the FDA, a natural flavor is anything that is extracted, distilled or derived from plant or animal matter, and is then cooked, roasted, or fermented for its use as a flavor. Let’s break that down:
- “Natural” means anything derived from plant or animal matter.
- “Natural flavors” are used for the sole function of flavor, not nutrition.
- “Natural flavors” is plural because there’s way, way more than one ingredient included.
You can scan any aisle in the grocery store and spot “natural flavors” on the front of hundreds, if not thousands of packages. In the Environmental Working Group’s food scores database, which documents about 80,000 foods, “natural flavors” is the fourth most common ingredient. That’s after sugar, salt and water. The troubling difference between these and number four is that a single natural flavor could include up to 100 different ingredients. Many of these ingredients are preservatives and small amounts of artificial ingredients.
If this doesn’t get you to consider the foods you eat, I don’t think anything will. Did you know that there is a very strange ingredient that is frequently used to flavor food items? This item is known as castoreum and it is derived from certain glands of the beaver…YUCK!!
Castoreum is a secretion from beavers. Beavers have a pair of pouch-like sacs, called castor sacs, between the kidneys and bladder, located on top of the base of the tail, just above the cloaca, which is the beaver’s only excretory opening. The castor sacs are scent glands and the secretions from these glands are used after the glands are harvested from the animals and dried, either in the sun or over burning wood. The pouches contain a yellowish, butter-like mass which has a fetid, sharp, aromatic odor. When this secretion is dried it becomes dark red or brown and has the consistency of hard wax. It is ground into a powder, and tinctures, resinoids, or absolutes are derived from it. When diluted, the scent becomes more pleasant. The smell is described as slightly fruity with notes of birch tar and musk.
Castoreum is frequently and incorrectly labeled as vanilla, raspberry or strawberry flavoring. Castoreum is actually a flavor enhancer that is used along with other flavors, but it does not replace those flavors. Castoreum has been used as a flavoring ingredient for the past 80 years. However, it is not necessary for food labels to list the ingredient by name. It can simply be listed as natural flavoring. It is used as a flavoring ingredient in many foods and beverages, particularly in vanilla, raspberry and strawberry flavored products.
It is reported to have been used in baked goods, chewing gum, frozen dairy desserts, gelatins, puddings, hard and soft candy and beverages. It is not used to impart a particular flavor, but rather as a flavor modifier. It is GRAS (generally recognized as safe) but is not Kosher and cannot be made Kosher. It may also be present in perfumes and cigarettes. However, castoreum is quite expensive and takes a lot of time and effort to harvest. So chances are good that not a lot of the items on your grocery list contain castoreum, but it’s not impossible.
Now that you’re completely grossed out, let’s look at the what and where of flavorings. Raspberry flavoring may contain concentrated extracts of juice, essential oils, imitation raspberry flavor, primarily 4-(4-Hydroxyphenyl)butan-2-one, or raspberry ketone, and any number of other flavorants to enhance the desired outcome. These may or may not include castoreum.
A raspberry, strawberry or another fruit flavoring may contain all natural ingredients or a mixture of natural and artificially derived ingredients. The primary flavor constituent will be a fruit extract or the major flavor or aroma compound for the fruit flavor desired. Other flavorings will be used as enhancements.
Foods with natural flavors are not healthier for you. In fact for junk foods, using phrases like “100% all natural flavors” frames foods to appear healthier than they really are. In some cases, you could unknowingly be sabotaging your health goals by consuming natural flavors. Foods that are meant to be vegetarian, for example, can and often do contain natural flavors that are derived from animal matter. Some natural flavors come from sources like eggs or fish and are used to flavor surprising foods, like orange juice or snack bars.
Natural flavors haven’t been around very long and many of them aren’t even FDA approved yet , so we won’t know just how bad these ingredients are for our health until they’ve been on the market for quite some time. There’s only a small amount of natural flavoring in your foods, but it is concerning that nearly 1,000 of them haven’t been thoroughly tested yet. Most of these ingredients are categorized as “generally recognized as safe”, or GRAS, but the Government Accountability Office (a non-partisan investigation group in Congress) has outright stated, “FDA is not systematically ensuring the continued safety of current GRAS substances.” That is really scary.
While it hasn’t been proven that natural flavors are directly bad for your health, these flavors are used in sneaky ways to keep you buying more, causing you to sabotage your own health goals. Remember, they are meant for flavor, not for your health. Even foods that we assumed would be naturally flavorful on their own have added natural flavors in them. So why add more?
Natural flavors are added to foods for several reasons. First, the processing and pasteurization of certain foods removes certain flavors, which are then replaced with “natural flavors”. Next, natural flavors produce an intense burst of flavor that quickly goes away, which causes you to eat more. Natural flavors amplify the smell of certain foods so you can associate the snack with the smell. (think Doritos or similar packaged chips). And lastly. natural flavors help make foods taste fresh, even if they’re not. Meaning that natural flavors are added to enhance and ultimately deceive the public.
This is why learning how to read food labels and doing a little research is so important. Unless you are growing your own food all the time, you have to become an informed consumer. There are about 13 companies that control the food market. They use marketing analysts to determine the most appropriate ways to entice the public. Using terms like “natural flavors” is just the tip of the iceberg. To truly be healthy, you have to do your homework. It may seem daunting at first, but it will save you a lot of headaches later.