Read the ingredient list on the back of most food products and you are bound to see the words “natural flavors” towards the end.
What are they, and just how “natural” are we talking?
Flavorings are actually odorous gases that are released from food when we chew.
Remember, taste isn’t simply relegated to the mouth (if that were the case, we would still be able to taste food when we had a cold and our nose was stuffed up).
Let’s examine the legal definition of “natural flavorings”. Make sure to take a deep breath, it’s a looooong sentence:
“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.”
Let’s dissect that.
First of all, notice that natural flavors can be plant or animal-based.
This is particularly important to vegetarians or vegans. A bag of seemingly-vegan corn chips may contain natural flavoring derived from animals if the term “vegan” is nowhere to be found on the packaging.
Individuals with allergies to particular foods must also pay attention, as natural flavorings can be made from “popular” allergens like wheat, shellfish, or soy. Usually, though, products using such flavorings will contain a statement about the inclusion of these allergens.
Believe it or not, there is very little difference between natural and artificial flavors.
Both are made by chemists in laboratories (and involve the use of solvents and chemicals), and both often result in the same compound. The only real difference is whether the original source is a plant/animal product or a chemical.
These flavorings are used in extremely low amounts, so while I would never refer to them as nutritious or health-promoting, I also don’t think they are worth worrying about (“natural flavoring” on an ingredient list should not be perceived the same way as “partially hydrogenated oils”).
That said, these flavorings are mainly found in highly processed foods, so they are a good barometer in that sense.
Don’t expect food companies to ever reveal the details of natural flavorings; most of them are considered top secret.
A few years ago I had the chance to visit the offices of a company that is hired by several well-known food conglomerates to conduct research and development of natural and artificial flavors.
It was your typical suburban corporate office, albeit with massive laboratory space and several conference rooms with one-way mirrors (perfect for focus groups).