What the Heck is Natural Flavor?

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Natural Flavors. They are EVERYWHERE on labels. In food. In drinks. In lip balm. They are the new “high-fructose corn syrup” — which used to be everywhere but thanks to education, has begun to be phased out of some products because consumers got wise to the fact that it was in everything and then started to complain about it. 

The problem with the substance in question (I can’t even call it an “ingredient’ — more on that in a minute) is that it contains the word “natural”. Which “naturally” (sorry, couldn’t resist), consumers see and automatically think they can trust. Sadly, we cannot trust this word. It means absolutely nothing. It’s not regulated in the US. Anyone can use it and there are not laws or rules around using it whatsoever.

So you pick up a bag of jelly beans that are supposed to be “natural”, and you see mostly ingredients you recognize plus this “natural flavors”. Or it could even be “organic natural flavors”. And you think, oh hey, this is great! Here is why it’s actually NOT:

1. A “flavor” is not an ingredient. Here is how you can tell. Can you find me the flavor tree and pick me one? Or, can you find a flavor farm and see all of the flavors grazing peacefully in the meadow? No? Ah. Right. That’s because it’s a chemical concoction of who-knows-what — not an actual ingredient.

2. The word “natural”, in this case, means only that it has to have been “derived” from an actual ingredient, i.e. a plant or an animal. However, “derived” has an interesting meaning. So your “Natural Coconut Flavor” might contain a chemical that is originally found in coconuts, enhanced, fiddled around with, and turned into a chemical concoction. Preservatives, emulsifiers, and all kinds of things can be added to that soup before it gets into the product. In addition, they may use animal parts from beings such as beavers or bugs to help enhance the flavor, which might not bother some folks but might be a problem for vegans, for example.

These concoctions can also contain a number of ingredients that I teach people to avoid, including: propylene glycol, BHT, BHA, and ore.

3. It’s yet another label loophole, like *fragrance* in personal care and home care products. It can mean up to 100 substances, just in the “natural flavors” part. Which means that at the end of the day, you have no idea what you are ingesting. In fact, in this article from the Environmental Working Group, it’s pointed out that “natural” flavors usually have more chemicals than the artificial ones. Yikes. 

You will even see these in certified organic products. In this case, they do have to at least comply with organic regulations, which means they can’t have GMOs or preservatives. However, it still means that you don’t know what you are eating. Don’t you deserve to know what is going into your body?

There are plenty of companies making products without natural flavors. Do your homework and support these companies. Moving to fewer processed foods will help, however, you *can* find processed foods with full ingredient disclosure. Part of what I do here at Whole Life Health is help people start their search for safe food products. Feel free to reach out to me for more information.


  • Christine Zimmerman

    I went to buy (wildly expensive) truffle oil and found the ingredients to be: Olive oil and truffle aroma. Aroma? No thank you!!

    • Meredith

      Interesting. Aroma is not the same as actual truffle, eh? I found this in an article about how to make your own truffle oil: “In order to make truffle oil a light oil is infused with pieces of truffle until the oil carries both the flavor and scent of the fungus. Let the buyer beware, however. Much of the inexpensive truffle oil found at your local market is a cheap imitation, made with oil and a chemical that is naturally found in the truffle. It contains no real truffle at all.”

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