Updated: Aug 21, 2020
Myth: Natural flavors are called "natural" so they must be good.
If there is any myth that deserves to be BUSTED it is this one. Lots of brands advertise so-called "Natural Flavors" as if they are good, and it's just a bunch of trickery, to be honest. It really gets us steamed.
In this post, we'll break down everything you need to know about Natural Flavors, why we think they are gross, and how you can avoid them.
Myth Buster: Natural Flavors
"The loophole, as it were, is that for nonorganic foods, the regulations do not restrict the dozens of other ingredients like preservatives and solvents that can go into a so-called natural flavor." - New York Times
A natural flavor can come from a whole host of things originally found on the earth. Per Business Insider, "‘Natural flavor’ is an umbrella term used to describe a chemical that was originally found in a naturally occurring source". A Natural Flavor, per the FDA, can derive flavor 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, etc..."
So you can have a natural fruit flavor that is actually derived from an animal? Um, yes. And there is no way to know where a flavor listed as "natural" actually comes from.
To break it down. Natural Flavors (like artificial flavors) are made in a lab. Furthermore, nutritionally there is no difference between artificial and natural flavors. Some say they may be in fact indistinguishable. According to foodrevolution.org, there could be as many as 100 chemicals in a single natural flavor. Super natural, right?
Now why are they called Natural Flavors?
Again per the NY Times, "Government regulations define natural flavors as those that derive their aroma or flavor chemicals from plant or animal sources...that are...manipulated in a lab. This distinguishes them from artificial flavors, which use man-made chemicals to give a product its particular flavor or aroma."
In other words, a natural flavor originally got it's flavor molecule from a product of the earth.
Some prime examples of "earth products" we are super uncomfortable with in our food & beverages? Raspberry and vanilla flavors are often made from the anal glands of beavers or possums. And your hot pink "natural" drink? That color could be from boiled beetles. Yum.
Why do people use them?
Well, they are cheaper, less caloric, and addictive.
Natural flavors are less expensive because they are made in bulk and are not truly whole ingredients.
They have no nutritional benefit or caloric value (look at the label of your surprisingly low calorie drink -- we predict you'll see "natural flavor" listed somewhere).
Because they are made in a lab they are very consistent (you don't get the variation you would get with real ingredients).
According to ewg.org, they are also designed to make the taste short lived, so that you in fact consume more. In an interview, ewg references, scientists were also often tasked with making the food more addictive.
How do you avoid them?
In our opinion, it's all a little sneaky. When we first found all this out we felt duped -- and we're still PO'd. Natural is supposed to be better right? Well, not to worry -- you aren't alone, and it's really easy to know what to look for if you decide that natural flavors aren't for you.
The first step is just to read the ingredients, carefully. Anything that says "Natural ____ Flavor", is not the whole ingredient. Another way it's written is "Flavored with Natural Raspberry". Also not the real ingredient. Now, it's worth mentioning that there are much more regulations around Organic Natural Flavors, so if it's your favorite beverage, and it lists organic natural flavors, you're in better shape.
To sum up, Natural Flavors are not what you think they are. As a rule of thumb, we think it's best to go real.
The more you know, the better you can consume!
The Owl's Brew Crew