(Here’s a promise from us, we’re always going to share exactly what’s in our product. No hiding behind natural flavors here – the photo above is some of our raw ingredients.)
Nature and flavor might be two of our favorite things, so why is this word combo stirring up such a hullabaloo? For us, it comes down to one thing really, a lack of transparency. The words “natural flavor” on an ingredient list just don’t tell the whole story.
Here’s how natural flavoring is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations:
“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” (21CFR101.22).
That seems to cover quite a lot for just two little words. The processes behind creating natural flavors are pretty broad too. Under FDA requirements, “You can use methylene chloride or hexane or chloroform to extract, and solubilize with things like propylene glycol, and add modified food starches and artificial preservatives and according to the FDA still call it a natural flavoring,” says food scientist Mary Mulry, PhD. Beyond the use of chemicals, there is no way to know how many components might be used to produce a single natural flavor.
In the industry, the extra components in natural flavors (emulsifiers, solvents, preservatives etc) are called “incidental additives“. This means they don’t have to be listed on the food labels. It also means that they don’t have to be natural, for example, the synthetic solvent Propylene Glycol can be used. Propylene glycol is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the FDA, but research has documented toxic effects and allergic reactions in people with skin allergies. Europe’s use of this solvent is limited mostly to non-food uses. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), a synthetic antioxidant considered “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, is also approved for use in natural flavors.
Maybe not all natural flavors use loads of chemicals. There’s got to be safe natural flavors out there deserving of the name. Heck, some could even be made from the very thing they taste so much like. But as things stand now it’s hard to find anything meaningful in the words “natural flavor”. We just think everyone deserves to know what’s what, so we can decide if we want it in our food.