According to the Environmental Working Group, natural flavors is the fourth most common ingredient in food behind only sugar, salt, and water. Have you ever wondered what “natural flavors” actually means?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines natural flavors 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.”
Are natural flavors vegan? No. There’s no way to tell which of the ingredients natural flavors contain because the FDA doesn’t require companies to disclose the ingredients list. Thus, the natural flavors in the food you’re eating may contain “meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.” Why are companies using natural flavors allowed to label their products vegan? The FDA permits it since the contents are unknown and may or may not contain animal ingredients.
Some companies provide information on their website about the natural flavors they use and guarantee they’re sourced from plants. That’s the only way you can guarantee they’re vegan. If this issue concerns you and you frequently buy a vegan product with natural flavors, you may consider asking the company if they source their natural flavors from plants.
Consumers may also be surprised to learn that natural flavors may contain preservatives and solvents, which can be toxic. Ingredients originating from genetically engineered crops may also be labeled “natural,” because the FDA hasn’t fully defined the term. Many of the chemicals that form natural flavors fall under a category called “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS. This category includes about 3,000 chemical food additives, many of which have not been thoroughly studied by the FDA. It may explain why the ingredients in natural flavors aren’t included on labels. Consumers should insist on food that is safe, not “generally” safe.
The Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, stated that the “FDA’s oversight process does not help ensure the safety of all new GRAS determinations” and that the “FDA is not systematically ensuring the continued safety of current GRAS substances.” An estimated 1,000 chemicals on the GRAS list have not been researched or approved by the FDA.
When I want to enhance the flavor of food, I use cilantro, onions, garlic, ginger, lemon, lime, turmeric, coriander, cumin, and other whole foods. The term “natural flavors” implies that these are flavors from those foods that have been added to our food. Such is not the case. Only 80% of a natural flavor needs to be natural by law. The other 20% can be a mixture of chemicals with addictive properties. These chemicals fool consumers into believing the food they’re eating has a taste that may be originating from the chemicals, not the food.
Why do companies use natural flavors? When they process food, it loses its natural flavor. When you taste processed orange juice, that’s not the orange you’re tasting. You’re tasting added flavors that mimic the taste. When you see “natural flavors” on a food label, there’s no way to know what you’re eating. To resolve this issue, consumers should demand more accountability from food companies and their legislators to provide more labeling transparency.
Are natural flavors safe to eat? There’s no way to know since companies don’t disclose their ingredients, but many food scientists agree there isn’t much difference between natural flavors and artificial flavors. Their purpose is to fool and addict consumers to a taste that isn’t real. Whole foods are the authentic natural flavors–and they’re vegan, and always the healthiest and safest choice.