Are ‘Natural Flavors’ Safe?
The word natural flavor or natural flavoring shows up on the ingredient list for a large number of food products, even products that are health-focused. There are hundreds of chemicals that can be used under this umbrella term to mimic natural flavors and enhance the overall flavor profile of the product. But are they safe? Most health influencers on the internet would tell you that natural flavors are harmful to your health. Some may even claim they are toxic. But here’s the truth: while naturals flavors come with specific concerns, they are also not toxic.
When recognizing ingredients that are most problematic, having context and perspective is key. Historically I have had zero problem with calling out the food industry for ingredients that are very problematic. One example would be this article that I wrote in 2018 on 7 potentially carcinogenic artificial flavors. Now these are absolutely ingredients that I definitively recommended avoiding.
What Are Natural Flavors?
According the the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), natural flavors are defined as “substances derived from animals or plants”. The FDA provides an in depth definition of natural flavor or natural flavoring what states that:
The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means 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. Natural flavors, include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants listed in §§ 182.10, 182.20, 182.40, and 182.50 and part 184 of this chapter, and the substances listed in § 172.510 of this chapter.
The difference between natural flavors is that artificial flavors are synthesized in a lab. Whether natural flavors are significantly better than artificial flavors is not known.
Primary Concerns with Natural Flavors
1-It’s a Guessing Game for People with Food Allergies or Restrictions
If you are following a very specific diet or have uncommon food allergies, it’s hard to know what is actually in the ‘natural flavors’ that are listed in the ingredient list of many products since it can include such a wide range of sub-ingredients. This can be risky for those with serious reactions to foods outside of the key food allergens that have to be conveyed on the Nutrition Facts panel. The most common food allergens will be listed on the line under the nutrition facts label that says: “Contains: Milk” or “Contains: Wheat”. If you have a food allergy to a food that isn’t listed under the ‘Contains’ line then it requires more work on your end. You may need to call the specific food company to find out what exactly is in the product, depending on the severity of the allergy.
2-Natural Flavors Can Contain Synthetic Chemicals and Preservatives
The biggest issue with natural flavors is that it is an umbrella term for many sub-ingredients that fall under them that are synthetic non-flavoring ingredients. Some seem to be safer than others but unfortunately this group of ingredients as a hole aren’t studied closely. The FDA recommends, but does not require, that companies conduct safety tests.
The Environmental Working Group states that it is possible for flavor extracts and ingredients to include genetically engineered crops or the preservative BHA. This is due to the FDA not having strict criteria for ‘natural flavors’. The exception is a product that is certified organic and uses organic natural flavors. One of several benefits of buying organic foods is that any natural flavors included in that product cannot be made with synthetic solvents or artificial preservatives.
This does not mean that all natural flavors are inherently dangerous, but it does mean that they are not regulated very closely, which provides the opportunity for less optimal ingredients to sneak in.
An Optimal Approach to Natural Flavors
1-Continue to advocate for labeling transparency from companies.
We absolutely need more labeling transparency, especially to help people that have less common food allergies.
2-Don’t go out of your way to eat products with natural flavors 24/7.
Are there places that you can decrease your intake of natural flavors that does not require a large amount of sacrifice? For instance: when you can drink soda water from a soda stream and add your own flavoring agent instead of drinking La Croix everyday, that lowers your intake.
3-But at the same time, as a consumer there are more important ingredients to avoid in your diet.
This is where perspective is key. I personally do not worry about the toxicity of natural flavors when buying a dairy-free coffee creamer. But I would be concerned if there were artificial sweeteners in my creamer because the data on the health consequences is much more established. The level of food fear and an obsession with ‘clean eating’ that is being pushed all over the internet has very toxic effects as well.