• There is very little difference between natural and artificial flavors. “Natural Flavors” only mean 80% natural, and they are not better for you.
  • Natural flavors can be added to food without being confirmed as safe — so there is no way to know how in the long run they will affect you.
  • Natural flavors are added so that people become addicted to the processed food, buy more of it, and generate more revenue for the food companies.
  • The best way avoid Natural Flavors is to buy whole unprocessed foods and to check the ingredients label of any processed foods.

Fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, water, in fact, a substantial portion of what we eat and drink, has been supplemented with natural flavors for centuries. From adding salt to meat to adding sugar to coffee, we have used so-called natural or artificial flavors.

Modern flavors, the sort listed on the nutrition label as “Natural Flavors” or “Artificial Flavors,” are much more complicated and sinister than simply adding a pinch of salt or a teaspoonful of sugar. They are cocktails of chemical, that are designed to tickle the nose and the tongue and create a taste that a customer will like and buy. Adding something to food that doesn’t sound like food, especially when it is made in a laboratory, doesn’t sound right and indeed is potentially harmful.

It isn’t right and, frankly, it doesn’t have to be this way. Here are three reasons why smart consumers should avoid Flavors — whether they are artificial or natural.

1: “Natural” = Only 80% Natural… But do you want any of it?

In general, consumers feel that a “natural” food is better than an “artificial” food. Natural, after all, sounds as if it is from a simpler time — before pesticides, before science, before the stress of modern life. This is not always the case, but people believe it — this is called a “health halo” and it can be deceptive.

The truth is, as long as at least 80% of the flavor comes from a “naturally occurring” source, companies can list it as “natural,” according to Code of Federal Regulations. The remaining 20% of the flavor? That can be whatever the flavor company wants to add in, artificial or otherwise.

However, even those “natural sources” may not include the natural object that it is meant to resemble. A natural orange or vanilla flavor may not come from — or even involve — real oranges or vanilla beans. Instead, they may contain other “natural” ingredients, such as tree bark, a part of a peanut plant… or even the ooze from the anal gland of a beaver.

Just like artificial flavors, “naturally occurring” flavors and the remaining 20% mysterious ingredients are mixed together in a flavor laboratory by scientists to find the most addictive blend for consumers.

Natural flavors may also not be vegetarian-friendly. Although meat extracts and broths have to be listed in the ingredients section, other ingredients derived from meat or animals don’t have to be listed at all if they are a part of a natural flavor. This means that an otherwise vegetarian or vegan product can potentially contain something derived from an animal.

So is natural flavor better than artificial flavor?

No — the natural origin provides no additional benefit, nutritionally or otherwise. In fact, artificial flavors produced in a lab may be purer, more vegetarian-friendly, and less likely to contain potential allergens. Aside from their origins, the two are almost exactly the same, down to the chemical level, and even down to the way the body reacts to them.

And that’s the problem.

2: Not All Flavors are Confirmed as Safe. Should You Eat Them?

Is added flavor, natural or artificial, safe to eat? We don’t always know for sure.

According to the International Food Information Council and the FDA, an ingredient can be added to food if it is “generally considered to be safe” or GRAS for human consumption. Unfortunately, some flavors have not been checked whether they are truly safe. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, FDA doesn’t determine GRAS proactively — it only reviews products when the flavor companies send them in for review. Otherwise, the flavor companies have complete control over what is GRAS and what isn’t, an obvious conflict of interest.

Worse still, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) when flavor companies and the regulatory agencies did investigate whether some flavors are safe, they don’t release the safety information to the public.

A few examples include the well-known flavor controversies of Diacetyl, a butter flavor that caused cancer when inhaled by workers producing it at a factory, and methyleugenol, a common flavor and carcinogen that is also found naturally in many spices (such as allspice.) They are GRAS – and methyleugenol is completely natural – but their safety, and safe dosages in processed foods, is less certain, and not heavily researched.

Moreover, some common possible allergens used in flavors, such as mustard and sesame, are not required to be listed. The flavors themselves may even cause a reaction. Food companies are only required to list whether their product contains milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. It means ingredients may be included that consumers are sensitive or allergic to — and they have no idea that it is in their food until they react to the food or contact the manufacturer.

3: What Natural Flavors covering up in the Food?

To understand the purpose of flavors, which are merely used to make food taste in a certain way, we need to ask two questions: Why do we want that taste? And what is making the food taste “off” in the first place?

A lot of additives are added to processed foods — or even seemingly less processed foods like orange juice, as reported by the Washington Post. This can include vitamins and minerals that add nutrition to the food for marketing purposes or to offset the loss during processing. It can also include preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers, and dyes that keep foods eye-catching, edible, and good-tasting after it’s been sitting on shelves for a while.

Good, bad, or deceptive, these additives and processing may result in food tasting bad or bland. What is the solution to this problem? Simple — cover up the off-tastes with added flavors.

And, perhaps more cunningly, it can include the engineering of the food itself. Food companies leverage engineering and psychology to create the perfect crunch, structure, shape that consumers would crave for. With “Natural Flavors”, the whole carefully engineered combination becomes addictive. You want more of that crunch, that shape, that structure, that all-too-brief taste. Your desire and addiction translate into profit for the food companies. Without the flavors, the whole illusion could be broken — the product could taste and smell awful, something you would never buy, let alone putting in your mouth.

So, here is the question for you to consider before you make a purchase: with a heavily flavored food, natural or otherwise, do you really know what you are eating?

If you want more information about flavors, how they are made, and why, go and check out this 60 Minutes episode on the topic — it is enlightening, to say the least.

What can you do about flavors? Stay Real.

The good news is that, ultimately, with a greater knowledge of what is and isn’t in their food, the trend is going one way: towards consumers knowing and choosing where their food comes from, ingredient by ingredient. These market forces, as they grow, will make it more profitable for companies to find ways to use “real” ingredients and, at the same time, make it taste good.

You can avoid natural flavors (and what they cover up) — simply look at the ingredients list and avoid foods with natural flavors or other additives or buy only whole unprocessed foods.

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