Natural Flavors vs Artificial Flavors
If you’re ever reading the ingredients label on a packaged food, you might notice something towards the bottom that says, ‘natural flavors’ or perhaps ‘artificial flavors’. Seems like a vague statement, doesn’t it? How do we know the ingredients grouped under this umbrella word, ‘natural’, are truly natural? Are the ingredients grouped in the ‘artificial flavorings’ category safe for us to consume?
Who Oversees Food Labeling?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) directly oversee the labeling of food. They are responsible for the laws which require companies to provide certain information on their packages. They can only make certain nutrient/health claims if they are willing to back it up. The terms ‘natural flavors’, ‘natural flavorings’, ‘artificial flavors’, and ‘artificial flavorings’ are monitored by the FDA. They require that a product making these claims truthfully do mean that the flavors are either natural or artificial. So what is the difference between natural and artificial according to the FDA? Here is the FDA’s official statement on the matter:
What is an Artificial Flavor?
“(a)(1) The term artificial flavor or artificial flavoring means any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof.
What is a Natural Flavor?
(3) The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extract, 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.”
Basically, it’s used to describe ingredients that come from real food, but it doesn’t provide enough nutrition to change the nutrition facts (grams of carbohydrates, calories, etc) – the sole purpose is to flavor the product.
Should I Avoid Any Natural or Artificial Flavors?
Rest assured, if you see the term ‘natural flavors’ on your food, the flavors are indeed coming from natural flavors – the FDA guarantees it! If it is more of a laboratory-created flavor that is NOT derived from fruits, vegetables, spices, etc. then it is coined a ‘artificial flavor’. The FDA would not allow this to be in your food if it was unsafe for human consumption. Just because it says artificial flavors does not meal your life is at risk. However, there may be something including in the umbrella term that you cannot personally tolerate. In this case, avoidance of a product with the term ‘artificial flavor’ may be something you should avoid. The same goes for natural flavors – if you know you don’t tolerate pepper, for example, then perhaps you should avoid the food that mysteriously says ‘natural flavors’.
Michelle Yates, RD, LMNT, is a clinical dietitian at CHI Health Lakeside Hospital, specializing in the Medical/Surgical unit & the Oncology unit. She doubles as a dance instructor as well as a master’s student for Health Psychology. Her passions are to help others break free from any negative ideas of food they carry, along with opening their eyes to the joys of “everything in moderation”.