It has been awhile since we last did a piece on ‘natural flavorings’ and with many people making New Year Resolutions to eat healthier coming up it seems a good opportunity to bring it to light again. Most people in the U.S. are clueless about what ‘natural flavorings’ are, mistakenly believing it is something (1) healthy and (2) natural. Nothing could be further from the truth. (Thank you, FDA*.) In fact, a survey conducted by FONA International found that 89% of consumers believe the term “natural flavors” qualifies as a clean label. yikes.
In reality, the U.S. designation of “natural flavoring” on food ingredients labels should be interpreted as “a mystery ingredient of unknown origin”–something that people with certain health conditions or religious restrictions who need to avoid specific ingredients, and consumers who are vegetarians and vegans, may find distressing. According to the FDA, natural flavor or 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”. Where the FDA permits the use of synthetic additives such as solvents, preservatives and emulsifiers in the processing of natural flavors**, and for which food and beverage manufacturers are not required to disclose on the ingredient food label.
There are currently efforts going on to reduce the amount of mystery surrounding what natural flavoring ingredients are in processed foods. For instance, Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, Inc. (a Lakewood, Colorado-based retailer with 160 stores in 20 states) recently developed a standard around natural flavors, which includes a quality standards questionnaire to ensure new products submitted with natural flavors do not contain any of the ingredients it has banned from its stores. Some food producers (like Spindrift Beverage Co. in Newton, Massachusetts) have also begun to list the actual sources of flavorings (source). This is a fantastic start but unfortunately, only a limited amount of consumers can currently access these food products.
With all the obfuscation in the food industry about what is really inside processed food, consumers are best off choosing organic processed food products that actually list the ingredients and do not resort to using the ambiguous “natural flavorings” rubric. Beyond this, the best bet (if you have the time) is to make your own condiments, snacks, beverages and meals from scratch using fresh, whole organic ingredients for which you know firsthand what goes inside the food.
*US Food and Drug Administration
**Those natural flavors used in organic products that have been certified by the US Department of Agriculture are held to a stricter set of standards and cannot be produced with synthetic solvents, synthetic carriers, artificial preservatives or genetic engineering. (Source: Organic Trade Association)