One of the most common questions I get from readers is:
What are natural flavors, and are they bad for you?
Natural flavors are the fourth most common ingredient on food labels today. The only ingredients you’ll see more often: salt, water and sugar.
In this article, we’ll answer these two big questions:
- What Is Natural Flavor?
- Are Natural Flavors Bad for You?
Let’s jump right in …
What Are Natural Flavors?
The FDA allows food companies to use the term “natural flavors” to describe any food additive that originated in nature.
If they originated in nature, what’s the problem? you may be asking.
According to David Andrews, Senior Scientist at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), this:
[Natural flavors] will often have some solvent and preservatives—and that makes up 80 to 90 percent of the volume. In the end product, it’s a small amount, but it still has artificial ingredients.[bctt tweet=”Natural flavor is now the fourth most common ingredient listed on food labels! ” username=”nutritionguy”]
This is a major issue for anyone who considers themself a clean, healthy eater.
Are Natural Flavors Bad for You?
The long term effects of ingesting natural flavors on a regular basis have not been studied.
They don’t appear to be unsafe in the amounts used in most foods.
But … here are the top four reasons I still try and avoid natural flavors whenever possible:
Reason #1: natural flavors are 90 percent chemicals
As you learned above, 80 to 90 percent of the ingredients that make up natural flavors contain chemical solvents and preservatives. These may include the cancer-causing chemical BHA, propylene glycol (found in antifreeze), and fillers comprised of some of the most common allergens (corn, soy, and dairy).
Reason #2: natural flavors are basically perfumes for your mouth
Cleaning products, perfumes, and cosmetics contain a combination of chemicals called “fragrances.” In processed food, this chemical mixture is called a “flavor.” Because smell comprises 80 to 90 percent of the sense of taste, fragrances and flavors are often alarmingly similar in chemical composition.
Reason #3: natural flavors are designed by Big Food to be addictive
There are four huge corporations that control the $24 billion market for both flavors and fragrances: Givaudan, Firmenich, IFF and Symrise.
In a fascinating 2011 interview that aired on 60 Minutes, scientists from Givaudan, one of the aforementioned power players in the food flavoring world, admitted their goal when creating flavors was to make them addictive![bctt tweet=”Scientists have admitted that natural flavors are designed to be addictive.” username=”nutritionguy”]
Reason #4: The FDA lets flavor companies call the shots
Incredibly, the FDA frequently allows food companies to develop their own food additives without providing oversight or safety reviews of their chemical concentrations. These companies are smart: they hire expensive lawyers to ensure they’ve followed the archaic FDA processes when developing their flavors … and generally the FDA leaves them alone.
Scientist David Andrews sums it up once again:
The truth is that when you see the word “flavor” on a food label, you have almost no clue what chemicals may have been added to the food under the umbrella of this vague term. For people who have uncommon food allergies or are on restricted diets, this can be a serious concern.
Wrap Up: Should You Avoid Natural Flavors?
Natural flavors are not natural, no matter how much food companies try to convince you otherwise.
But they’re so prevalent in so many foods it’s really hard to avoid them.
The simple solution is to stop buying foods that contain natural flavors. This involves scrutinizing foods labels a bit more.
And at the end of the day, eating more fresh foods that come from nature and packaged foods with only ingredients you recognize as real food is the easiest way to avoid natural flavors.