Q: How “natural” are natural flavors?
A: “Natural” as a food or ingredient descriptor is one of the worst terms in food marketing, as it essentially means nothing. [Tweet this fact!] It definitely doesn't speak to healthfulness of a food in any way—after all, cocaine is natural, right? So if you see a food described as “natural,” what criteria does that product meet?
According to the Food and Drug Administration, "the FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives." This doesn't seem to set the bar very high for the use of the term “natural flavor.” And the FDA’s definition of that term isn't very helpful at all:
“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.”
Many, if not most, natural flavors come from essential oils of plants or spices. Coke's natural flavorings are just that, coming from extracts and oils of spices and fruits. But while you’d assume that the added “natural flavoring” in a citrus-based food comes from an orange or grapefruit, according to the FDA definition, it could be some food science miracle and actually come from chicken feet.
Why do you need foods with natural flavoring anyway? Mother Nature created some amazing fresh flavors that don't need to be combined with unknown “natural” extracts. I always encourage clients to eat as much of their diet as possible from basic whole foods, ones that have one or two ingredients that are clearly disclosed. I bought butter yesterday that contained cream and salt as the two ingredients, although there were at least 10 other options that I could have chosen that contained natural colors, natural flavors, and seven other things needed to mimic the taste and texture of cream and salt.
If you have a handful of products that you use on a regular basis that also contain natural flavors, just email or call the company and see what those natural flavors are actually derived from. [Tweet this tip!] You'll be able to quickly find out if it is a product that you want to continue using. In the end, try to keep it as simple as possible, whenever possible, like cream and salt.