What Exactly Are 'Natural Flavors'?

Chopping up herbs
@hellomikee via Twenty20

Do you ever read the ingredients list on a bag, box, or can of food and wonder just what "natural flavors" are and why they're needed? Shouldn't food taste good without anything added? Maybe, but first it's important to understand what makes up a flavor and why flavor is necessary to begin with.

What Makes Something Flavorful?

Flavor is an important characteristic of the foods we eat every day—it's difficult to imagine eating a diet made up of bland flavorless foods!

Essentially, flavor is the combination of the taste, aroma, and feel of food.

While some foods, such as fresh fruits and berries, taste delicious just as they are, most dishes we eat are more complex and almost always contain some type of added ingredients to enhance flavor. Actually, every recipe includes some sort of extra flavor-enhancing ingredients, such as salt, pepper, herbs, and spices.

Enhancing the flavor of foods can make eating a joyful thing for anyone of us. But, adding flavors to foods also helps to stimulate appetite, which is essential for people who need to gain weight, like older people who may have lost some of their ability to taste foods.

Flavorings as Food Additives

You know how fresh foods taste when you make them at home? Think about fresh bread right from the oven or a yummy vegetable stew simmering on the stove. Amazing, right? Of course. But, it's also quite time consuming, so many consumers opt to have processed foods on hand that taste almost as good as their homemade counterpart.

The thing is, in order to be convenient, processed foods need to last a long time and the preservation methods used to accomplish that tend to reduce flavor. Thus, food manufacturers may turn to adding natural flavors to enhance or maintain the flavor of the food after it's processed. So, with that in mind, what exactly are natural flavors?

According to the United States Food and Drug Administration:

"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."

That said, seeing the words "natural flavor" on an ingredients list doesn't really tell you much about what those added flavorings actually taste like. While it's easy enough to identify the flavorings in an actual recipe, it can be more difficult to know what flavorings are added to processed foods on the whole.

4 Questions About Natural Flavors

  1. Are natural flavors safer than artificial flavors? Probably not. Artificial flavors are made from non-food sources while natural flavors come from foods or other edible things. However, they all end up being about the same and are safe to consume.
  2. Are natural flavors suitable for vegetarian and vegan foods? Natural flavors can be made from animal products. So, unless the manufacturer explicitly states the natural flavors are plant-based or the food product is vegetarian or vegan, there's really no way to know whether they come from animals or plants.
  1. Are natural flavors organic? There's no way to know for sure unless the food manufacturer states that the natural flavors are from organic sources. 
  2. Is monosodium glutamate considered a natural flavoring? Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is a flavor enhancer. But, if used as an ingredient in a food, it needs to be listed as such.

A Word From Verywell

Natural flavorings are used in a wide variety of foods and are sourced from edible elements found in nature. While they're certainly safe to consume, simply listing "natural flavors" on an ingredients list doesn't mean the food product is healthier than foods made with artificial flavors or no added flavors at all.

You'll still need to look at the nutrition facts label to know if the food is in fact good for you or not.

Sources:

American Chemical Society. "Flavor Chemistry Research at the USDA Western Regional Research Center."

The Journals of Gerontology. "Flavor Enhancement of Food Improves Dietary Intake and Nutritional Status of Elderly Nursing Home Residents."

United States Department of Agriculture. "Natural Flavorings on Meat and Poultry Labels."

United States Food and Drug Administration. "CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21​."

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