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Here's the truth behind natural flavor, a common—but vague—ingredient in many of our favorite food and drink products.

Elizabeth Laseter
November 21, 2017

What’s the secret behind the citrusy kick in your sparkling water? How about the cool minty flavor in chewing gum? Natural flavors are often responsible for the craveworthy factor behind many of our favorite food and drink products. In fact, the Environmental Working Group (the non-profit organization behind the annual dirty dozen list) ranks natural flavor as the fourth most common ingredient across nearly 80,000 products in their FoodScores database, which rates foods based on nutrition, ingredient concern, and degree of processing.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines and regulates the use of natural flavors on food labels, but concerned consumers are demanding greater transparency, including a formalized definition for natural. The ultimate question is—what exactly are natural flavors? Are they better than artificial flavors? We’ve taken a deep dive into this common but vague ingredient so you can make an informed choice at the grocery store. Find everything you need to know about natural flavors, including what they mean, why they’re used, typical food sources, and how they differ from artificial flavors.

What Is Natural Flavor?

The FDA’s Code of Federal Regulations defines natural flavor 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.”

Related: A Natural Label on Food Means Next to Nothing. Here's Why.

While not purposely dubious, the FDA’s definition is rather tough to unravel. In short, natural flavors are any substance with plant or animal origins. Let’s dig deeper into one of the terms—essential oils. In Dr. Mathew Attokaran’s Natural Food Flavors and Colorants, he defines essential oils as “volatile, generally aroma-contributing liquids produced by plants.” Essential oils can be derived from any number of plant materials including fruits, herbs, and spices, typically through a process called distillation. Essential oils may be added to chewing gum or candy to add a spearmint or peppermint flavor.

What consumers need to know is that “natural flavor” does not necessarily point to one single ingredient. One natural flavor may be comprised of multiple ingredients, but current FDA regulations do not require companies to list each one. All ingredients must have the FDA's "generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS status, which is determined by experts and scientific evidence. For those with food allergies, not knowing the full ingredient breakdown could prove problematic. However, the FDA encourages companies to list potential allergens found in flavors, spices, or colors in foods.

The final part of the FDA’s definition is crucial, as it shows that natural flavors have nothing to do with the actual nutrition of a food. Instead, natural flavors serve to impart flavor to a food or beverage so that it is more palatable for consumers.

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Natural Flavor in Sparkling Water

Whether it’s LaCroix, Perrier, or San Pellegrino, sparkling water is often marketed as a healthier alternative to soda. There’s a plethora of refreshing sparkling water flavors available today, from zippy lime to bittersweet grapefruit, all with zero calories or sugar. Scan the label and you’ll often find just two ingredients, carbonated water and natural flavor. If your sparkling water tastes like fruit without listing it as an ingredient, check the ingredient list for natural flavors. If you’re looking to avoid natural flavors, stick to unflavored sparkling water or try Spindrift’s lemon flavor, which contains only sparkling water and fresh lemon juice.

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Natural Flavor in Food

Food products that boast distinctive flavors such as blueberry yogurt, maple-pecan oatmeal, peppermint chewing gum, yogurt-covered pretzels, and butter-flavored microwave popcorn may be getting their taste and aroma from natural flavors. Why? Natural flavors in food are used for the same reason as they are in sparkling water. Like any additive, natural flavors can enhance a food or beverage to make it more appealing to consumers. If you want to avoid natural flavors, choose whole unprocessed foods such as fruits and vegetables—you’ll also have the benefit of adding valuable nutrients into your diet. Limit convenience foods, such as canned soup, and cook your meals from scratch when possible.

Natural Flavor vs. Artificial Flavor

Natural flavors and artificial flavors are more closely related than we might expect. Regardless of their origins, both are manufactured in a controlled environment by humans. The major difference is that artificial flavors do not come from a natural source such as a plant or animal. The FDA defines artificial flavors as simply any flavoring that does not meet the definition of natural flavor—“...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.” Companies may use artificial flavors as a more cost-effective way to mimic the natural flavors of certain foods. "Natural and Artificial Flavoring Agents and Food Dyes,” from the Handbook of Food Bioengineering, lists lemon, butter, and berry flavors as some of the most common artificial flavors in foods. Other examples of artificial flavors are sodium nitrate, a typical ingredient in bacon, and vanillin, a less expensive alternative to vanilla extract.   

Related: Why Natural Matters When It Comes To Vanilla

So, which is better, natural flavors or artificial flavors? While both meet the FDA's "GRAS" standards, the smartest move you can make as a consumer is to do your research, then decide if either are right for your dietary preferences or needs. While natural flavors may sound better, remember that neither term reflects a food’s nutritional value.

Here’s the bottom line—both natural flavors and artificial flavors are food additives associated with processed foods, many of which are not always the healthiest. In order to get the highest nutritional value, limit or avoid overly processed foods. Instead, fill your diet with whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. You’ll not only access boundless nutritional benefits, but you’ll also learn to love food in the very way that nature intended.