By Matt Rozsa
Unfortunately, these days eating foods that are labelled as “natural” isn’t enough to guarantee that what you’re eating is actually natural, simple, or good for you.
In fact one of the most common use of the words “natural” is in the ingredient “natural flavor” — I’m sure you’ve seen it. In fact, it’s the fourth most commonly listed ingredient in food (!) after salt, water, and sugar.
What’s crazy though, is that in those two little words, over 100 other ingredients can often be hiding — all chemicals that “impersonate” the real, natural flavor of your “natural food.”
If an ingredient is listed as a natural flavor, all it means is that it includes chemicals intended to give the impression of a given food’s authentic taste. The FDA defines them as “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.”
The FDA says it “has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”
David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, sums it up perfectly: “How a food tastes is largely determined by the volatile chemicals in the food. Chemicals that give food a specific smell are extremely important because smell makes up 80 to 90 percent of the sense of taste … In processed food, this mixture of chemicals is called ‘flavor.’ The same mixture of chemicals would be called “fragrance” if it were found in cleaning products, perfumes or cosmetics. The difference between the two is small, and the companies that produce these secret mixtures are often exactly the same.”
There’s growing science as well that these chemicals, though deemed “Generally Regarded as Safe” by the FDA, may not be fully understood by scientists, and in fact could be causing many of the food allergies we see today. So if you want to be on the safer side and avoid eating the 100+ ingredients in “natural flavor,” definitely read each ingredient label to find products that are made with real food ingredients – not “flavor.”
In fact, one could view the use of natural flavors as really just a decades-long effort by big chemical corporations to train us to like a certain taste profile — making us addicted to the taste of their patented fragrance instead of the taste of food grown and eaten as Mother Nature intended, no patents needed.