Look at the food label of almost any packaged good you consume and odds are you’ll spot the term “natural flavors.” But have you ever wondered what this mysterious additive actually contains? The answer isn’t as clear as you might think.
Though natural flavors may sound better than their presumably chemical-laden alternative — artificial flavors — it turns out they are not actually all that different from one another.
We got to the bottom of the difference between artificial and natural flavoring — and what it might mean for your health.
Why Natural Flavors Are Everywhere in Your Food
In the Food Scores database of over 80,000 foods created by the Environmental Working Group, “natural flavor” is the fourth most common ingredient listed on labels. The only ingredients that outrank it: salt, water and sugar. Yet, natural flavoring isn’t nearly as simple as these three pantry staples.
Added flavoring, both natural and artificial, could contain anywhere from 50 to 100 ingredients.
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“Natural and artificial flavors play an interesting role in food. They’re essentially providing the taste and often they’re added to make the food more appealing, or to potentially replace something that’s lost through processing, storage or in some cases even from pasteurizing,” says David Andrews, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group.
One place you’ll often spot natural or artificial flavor is in orange juice — manufacturers will add faux flavor to juice after it’s packaged in the plant, to ensure uniformity. “It’s to make sure that you have the exact same tasting food products across the country, any time of year,” Andrews says. “It’s become the signature of a lot of these products.”
Blurred Lines: Artificial vs. Natural Flavors
So what distinguishes an artificial flavor from a “natural” flavor? Not much, according to Andrews. “The largest difference is that natural flavors are coming from natural sources — the original ingredient is found in nature and then purified and extracted and added back into the food.”
Artificial and natural add-ins might trick you into expecting flavors out of your foods that don’t exist in real life.
But, that doesn’t necessarily mean the “natural flavors” in your blueberry granola bar are simply…crushed-up blueberries. Rather, they probably consist of a chemical originally found in blueberries, enhanced and added into your food in a lab.
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Artificial flavors, on the other hand, are usually entirely man-made, as opposed to being derived from a natural source. If the distinction seems fuzzy to you, you’re not alone. “The differentiation is really down to the origin of those molecules, whether synthetically processed in a lab or purified in a lab but from a natural source,” Andrews says.
Here’s where it gets even muddier: Added flavoring, both natural and artificial, could contain anywhere from 50 to 100 ingredients. And all of the extra ingredients in flavors often aren’t as innocent as you’d hope they would be. “The mixture will often have some solvent and preservatives — and that makes up 80 to 90 percent of the volume [of the flavoring]. In the end product, it’s a small amount, but it still has artificial ingredients,” Andrews says.
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Ultimately, the difference between natural and artificial flavors often comes down to miniscule distinctions. “Most often, as far as I could find, the actual chemicals themselves could be identical or extremely close in terms of natural versus artificial,” Andrews says.
Could Natural Flavors Harm Your Health?
The amount of preservatives and solvents in natural flavors is too small to be linked to any ill health effects, Andrews notes. But, it still creates confusion, and may be leading consumers astray. “There’s the general fact of transparency, it’s hard to know what’s in these ingredient mixtures,” he says.
For example, artificial and natural add-ins might trick you into expecting flavors out of your foods that don’t exist in real life. “The goal is to make a short intense flavor that quickly dissipates so you come back for more,” Andrews says.
Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics believes artificial or natural flavors may induce food cravings in some people. “As a consumer, it is important to be savvy about ingredients. Recognize that any food consumed in excess of your needs is going to affect your weight loss journey,” Sheth notes. Numerous studies have linked artificial sweeteners, which have the same super-sized effect on flavor, to weight gain and unhealthy dietary habits, too.
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“One concern we have is the ability to make things more appealing than they may necessarily be,” Andrews says. “You can make [foods that aren’t as healthy] more appealing or even taste as if they’re extremely fresh when they may not be.”
While you don’t need to swear off natural or artificial flavors for life, Andrews advises sticking to a diet of whole foods when you can. Because you can be sure the flavors in an actual apple didn’t originate in a lab.