Beyond the Label: The Truth Behind "Natural Flavors"

Posted on February 22, 2024

Beyond the Label: The Truth Behind

Consumers often associate "natural flavors" with healthy and wholesome ingredients derived directly from nature. However, the reality can be quite different.


Natural flavors, often depicted as wholesome and pure, contribute to the taste profiles of countless products. Currently valued at US$ 6400 Million, there is a projected 6.6% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2022 to 2032, with the industry speculated to reach revenues of US$ 12070.20 Million by 2032. The aftermath of previous epidemics is also a contributing factor to heightened consumer interest in health, propeling market expansion.


While most natural flavors are deemed safe by regulatory bodies, research is still ongoing. Potential concerns linger, particularly regarding specific compounds used as natural flavoring and their impact on health. Which raises the question: Are natural flavors as wholesome and pure as they claim to be?


Let's find out.


The Ambiguity of "Natural Flavors"

The debate around natural flavors is based on several discrepancies. These include:


Diverse Composition

"Natural flavors" are not single substances but complex mixtures containing various components, which may not align with expectations of what is considered "natural." While these flavors are derived from natural sources like vegetables and herbs, they can include chemically processed compounds still classified as "natural" under certain regulatory frameworks.


These include:


  • Naturally derived: These are elements like extracts, oils, and essences from fruits, vegetables, spices, and herbs, among others.
  • Nature-identical: Synthetic recreations of natural molecules, chemically identical to their counterparts but often produced through industrial processes.
  • Processing aids: Solvents, carriers, emulsifiers, and other additives used to facilitate production, storage, and flavor consistency.


GRAS Designation and Transparency Issues

Many "natural flavors" fall under the FEMA GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) designation, allowing manufacturers to self-declare them 'safe' without FDA approval.


The FDA's reliance on a voluntary GRAS notification program, where companies can submit safety assessments for their own determinations of GRAS substances, raises concerns about conflicts of interest and limits the agency's ability to collect information about the safety of these substances systematically.


This system lacks transparency, as the specific ingredients within a "natural flavor" are often not publicly disclosed, making it difficult for consumers to understand what they're consuming.


Potential Discrepancies with Expectations

Consumers might expect "natural flavors" to be solely composed of natural extracts. However, nature-identical and processing aids can be present, potentially contradicting their expectations. Additionally, some natural extracts may undergo significant processing, raising questions about how "natural" they truly are.


Health Concerns and Regulatory Gaps

While GRAS substances are generally considered safe, concerns exist about the potential long-term effects of chronic exposure to complex flavor mixtures and their components. The current regulatory framework may not adequately address emerging scientific concerns or the cumulative effects of multiple additives in food.


Chemical Composition of "Natural Flavors"

Natural flavors are complex mixtures created by food chemists known as flavorists. They are obtained from plants, animals, and even eggs. While natural flavors are intended to enhance taste rather than provide nutritional value, they are prevalent in processed foods, ranking as the fourth most common ingredient on food labels.


Common Natural Flavor Compounds

Some common compounds that contribute to natural flavors include:


  • Amyl acetate: Distilled from bananas for a banana-like flavor.
  • Citral (geranial): Extracted from lemongrass, lemon, orange, and pimento for citrus-flavored products.
  • Benzaldehyde: Derived from almonds, cinnamon oil, and other sources, often used for almond flavor.
  • Other flavors like linden ether (honey), massoia lactone (coconut), and acetoin (butter).


Health Concerns and Considerations

The distinction between natural and artificial flavors may not be as significant as perceived. Here's why:


  • Ambiguity of "Natural": The term "natural" lacks a standardized definition, leading to misconceptions about the healthiness of products labeled as such.
  • Source and extraction methods: While natural flavors must originate from plants, animals, or eggs, the extraction processes involve complex chemical methods, introducing additional elements into the final product. Additives like preservatives and solvents may be present alongside primary flavor compounds.
  • Allergies and special diets: Natural flavors may contain numerous chemicals, posing concerns for individuals with allergies or dietary restrictions. Clear labeling and transparency is crucial to make informed consumer choices.
  • Processing and additives: Natural flavors undergo significant processing, potentially containing over 100 different chemicals categorized as "incidental additives." This means the distinction between natural and synthetic additives may not always be apparent.
  • Misconceptions about "Natural": Consumers often associate the term "natural" with healthiness, but without a formal definition, this perception can be misleading. Flavors from genetically modified crops may also be labeled as natural.


The Overlap Between Natural and Artificial Flavors

Despite the "natural" origin, natural flavors' chemical composition is remarkably similar to artificial flavors. Some argue that artificial flavors, produced under controlled conditions, might even be safer.


One such example is castoreum, a substance extracted from beaver castor sacs, which was historically used for its vanilla-raspberry flavor. Although castoreum is considered safe by the FDA, its use has significantly declined due to cost, labor-intensive extraction processes, and limited availability.


Today, synthetic alternatives like vanillin are more commonly used in food production due to their affordability, ease of procurement, and remarkably similar chemical composition with artificial flavors.


Impact on the Microbiome

While the direct impact of "natural flavors" on the gut microbiome and digestive health remains under investigation, there are some potential concerns. Studies reveal a concerning link between ultra-processed foods (containing both natural and artificial flavorings) consumption and increased mortality rates, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and gestational diabetes. Additionally, hypertension, cancer risk, and associations with obesity are reported.


So, what are ultra-processed foods (UPFs)? The NOVA classification system categorizes foods into four:


  • Unprocessed
  • Processed ingredients
  • Typical processed foods
  • Ultra-processed foods


UPFs, with their escalating consumption in high-income countries, are associated with adverse health outcomes, making up a substantial portion of caloric intake in countries like France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.


The growing risk of certain lifestyle diseases could be due to modern food processing techniques involving the use of mechanical, physical, and chemical methods that may introduce structural changes in processed foods. These techniques alter the nutritional quality of foods and introduce potentially toxic substances like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and acrylamide. Not to mention added agents like preservatives.


Notably, UPFs disrupt the gut microbiome, leading to metabolic dysregulation and associated conditions. When the balance of beneficial bacteria is disturbed, it can lead to inflammation, gastrointestinal discomfort, and conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Imbalances in the gut microbiota have also been linked to increased susceptibility to infections, allergies, and metabolic disorders like obesity and type 2 diabetes.


Public education and policy interventions are necessary to mitigate the adverse effects of UPFs on the gut microbiome and overall health. Encouraging the consumption of minimally processed, additive-free foods can promote better gut health and reduce the risk of chronic inflammation and metabolic disorders.


Natural vs Artificial Flavors: Which is Better?

Natural and artificial flavors play a significant role in the taste and appeal of processed foods. Listed as the fourth most common ingredient in processed foods, "natural flavor" is found in over a fifth of the 80,000 foods rated by EWG's Food Scores. However, the distinction between the two may not be as clear-cut as it seems.


The flavor industry, dominated by a few major players, invests substantial effort in crafting flavors to enhance processed foods. These flavors, whether natural or artificial, are complex mixtures of chemicals that determine taste and aroma.


A startling revelation is that "natural flavors" can contain synthetic chemicals. The term "natural," is often used loosely in such contexts. For example, McDonald's derives its "natural beef flavor" from wheat and milk.


Flavoring serves various purposes, including:


  • Making food taste fresh
  • Enhancing palatability
  • Promoting addictive eating behaviors.


The FDA defines natural flavors as derived from specified organic sources, while artificial flavors are synthesized using approved chemicals. However, both may share identical flavor chemicals, challenging the notion that one is inherently superior or safer than the other.


A significant concern is the lack of disclosure regarding specific flavor chemicals and the presence of incidental additives in both natural and artificial flavors. This may pose a challenge for people with food allergies or dietary restrictions.


While some argue that artificial flavors undergo stricter safety evaluations than natural flavors, the overall scrutiny of food additives is deemed inadequate. The perception of natural flavors as healthier or safer can be misleading, considering the presence of potentially toxic substances and the environmental impact of sourcing natural ingredients.


With the industry making over $24 billion annually, even with limited FDA oversight, there are growing concerns about the thoroughness of safety evaluations for these additives.


Challenges and Misconceptions


  • Marketing influence: Food companies capitalize on consumer preferences for "natural" products, despite artificial flavors often being identical in safety and quality. This marketing strategy perpetuates misconceptions and drives consumer choices based on unfounded beliefs rather than scientific evidence.
  • Celebrity influence: Celebrities and influencers further propagate misconceptions about natural and artificial flavors, contributing to public confusion and fear regarding chemicals in food.
  • Scientific reality: Chemical safety depends on dosage, not source. Both natural and artificial flavors undergo rigorous safety evaluations, ensuring they meet regulatory standards.


Regulatory Oversight and Labeling Practices

Regulatory oversight and labeling practices for natural flavors vary globally, with distinct definitions and requirements set by different regions.


The U.S.

In the United States, the term "natural flavor" is defined under regulation 21 CFR 101.22. It defines flavors derived from natural raw materials, including plant, animal, and microbiological sources, with no artificial constituents. Notably, even flavors obtained from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are considered natural in the U.S.


The E.U.

In the European Union (EU), natural flavors are defined by regulation (EC) 1334/2008, which specifies criteria for being obtained through physical, enzymatic, or microbiological processes from vegetable, animal, or microbiological origin. Unlike the U.S., the EU restricts manufacturing methods, excluding the use of synthetic and inorganic catalysts.


Other Regions

Other global entities, including India, Japan, Canada, and Australia/New Zealand, have their own definitions of natural flavors. For instance, India limits natural flavors to those derived exclusively by physical processes from vegetables, while Japan has a specific list of acceptable raw materials. Australia and New Zealand, in contrast, revised regulations in 2002, no longer distinguishing between natural and artificial flavors.


The International Organization of the Flavor Industry (IOFI) provides a guideline based on EU regulations, serving as a reference for regions without specific regulations. However, the lack of a unified global standard highlights the importance of understanding regional definitions and requirements when marketing natural flavors.


Consumer Awareness and Perception

While the "natural" label on food products resonates with consumers, their understanding of its potential benefits and health risks of natural flavors often remains limited. Here's a breakdown:


Overestimation of Safety

Many consumers associate "natural" with inherently healthier and safer than "artificial," often overlooking the chemical similarities between natural and artificial flavors. This perception leads to complacency in checking ingredient lists and trusting products labeled "natural."


Limited Understanding of Regulations

Consumers are often unaware of the varying and sometimes vague definitions of "natural" across different regions, leading to confusion and misinterpretations. This confusion is further fuelled by the lack of transparency regarding manufacturing processes and potential additives within "natural" flavors.


Misinformation and Marketing Hype

Food manufacturers often capitalize on the positive connotations of "natural" for marketing purposes, sometimes misleadingly. These are exacerbated by misinformation and exaggerated claims about the health benefits of natural flavors.


Health Concerns and Individual Sensitivities

While the link between artificial flavors and certain health concerns like hyperactivity needs further investigation, some people might have sensitivities to specific natural ingredients.


A randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial found that artificial food color and additives (AFCA), such as sodium benzoate, induced hyperactivity in young children. This implies that focusing solely on the term "natural flavors" may lead consumers to perceive these additives as safe or benign, despite potential health implications.


Conclusion and Future Outlook

The bottom line is that regulatory definitions of natural flavors vary globally, contributing to a lack of standardization. Labeling practices, particularly in the United States, may lead to misunderstandings, as there is no universal definition for the term "natural" in food labeling.


Recognizing these complexities, Laird Superfood proudly stands apart as a leader in prioritizing consumer health. Unlike many in the food industry, we have taken a proactive stance by choosing not to use natural flavors in any of our products. This decision reflects a commitment to providing clean ingredient labels, addressing the concerns surrounding potential health risks associated with certain additives. As the industry grapples with evolving consumer preferences and health considerations, Laird Superfood sets a commendable standard for transparency and prioritizing the well-being of its consumers.


By embracing a comprehensive approach that goes beyond simplistic labeling, you can navigate the complexities of the food landscape and make informed choices for a healthier and more sustainable future.

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