“Natural flavors” – they’re in your can of cherry sparkling water, your carton of berry yogurt, your glass of fruity tea. They're one of the most common ingredients in our food and drinks, yet they’re also one of the most confusing. Some people assume that “natural” means that the flavoring is plucked right from Mother Earth, like a squeeze of fresh citrus juice into lime seltzer. But online rumors also warn they’re a harmful additive you should avoid. So what’s the truth?
Natural flavors are derived from plants or animals. That means things like herbs and roots, fruits and vegetables, and eggs and meat. Yet in many cases, the natural flavor in a food isn’t one simple extract or essential oil--it’s a combination of many different ingredients. Natural flavors can contain ingredients that help that flavor work well in the food, including preservatives and stabilizers, but these ingredients don’t have to be derived from natural sources.
Trouble is, the FDA doesn't require companies to disclose the specific ingredients included in natural flavoring. In other words, it's impossible to know the exact ingredients used and whether you want to avoid them. For instance, vegans would want to steer clear of natural flavors that come from animals. It’s also risky for people with food allergies to not know exactly what a food contains. Case in point: Sesame can be labeled as an unspecified “natural flavor” in foods like pizza dough and vitamins, even though sesame allergies are a growing concern (thankfully, the FDA is currently reviewing whether sesame should be called out specifically on labels as other major allergens are).
With the vague umbrella term of "natural flavor", you're left with a lot of questions. So what should you do? I'd never tell you to shun processed foods entirely--they're a fact of life for most people--but the less processed a food is, the less likely you are to consume natural and artificial flavors. And in minimally processed foods, natural flavors tend to be listed near the bottom of a product's ingredient list, which means it's one of the smallest ingredients by weight.
Of course you can always add your own, truly natural flavor. Squeeze a lemon into your seltzer, stir strawberries into your yogurt, or swirl maple syrup into plain oatmeal instead of buying flavored versions. And when in doubt, call the company. If you want to know exactly what's in the natural flavor listed on your drink or yogurt (especially if there are food allergies in your family or you're trying to avoid animal products) contact the manufacturer and ask them directly.