Every time I see the words “Natural Flavors” stamped on the front of a product label, it always makes me wonder, what does natural flavor actually mean? Is one type of flavoring better for you, than the other? Even though the term “Artificial Flavors” sounds a bit suspicious in its authenticity, it turns out that natural and artificial flavors aren’t actually that different. Same, same, but different.
What are Natural Flavors?
Natural and artificial flavors can be manufactured from the exact same chemical constituents found in naturally occurring edible foods and those found in synthesized inedible sources created in labs.
For example, natural flavors come from naturally occurring sources, which are found in nature, purified, extracted, and then added back into food. However, that does not necessarily mean that the “Natural Flavors” in your strawberry yogurt are derived from crushed up strawberries. More than likely, they probably consist of the same chemicals originally found in Strawberries, which were then enhanced, synthesized and then added back into your yogurt. Sounds crazy, right?
According to an article published in the Food & Drug Law Journal
"The FDA has promulgated legally binding regulations for natural flavors. These flavors are currently the fourth most common food ingredient listed on food labels. In reality, “natural flavors” are a far cry from what consumers might expect, as they can contain both artificial and synthetic chemicals (often used as processing aids). Nonetheless, without a legally binding Natural regulation, there has been little opportunity to contest the naturalness of natural flavors in the past. Recently, FDA has initiated notification of request for comments on the use of the term Natural, so an attempt to promulgate regulations may be underway."
So for all you people out there, who get your panties in a bunch, and only eat things marketed with natural flavors because you think they're better than artificial flavors, think again. [R]
What Are Artificial Flavors?
As opposed to natural flavors, which are derived from sources found in nature, artificial flavors are entirely human-made. For example, you can derive a “Natural” lemon flavor from citral, the naturally occurring chemical that is found in the lemon peel of a lemon. You can also have an “Artificial” flavor derived from citral, which is processed with petrochemicals. The only difference between these two chemicals is how they are synthesized. Therefore, artificial flavors will produce the exact same response and experience from you the consumer in how they taste because they’re actually made from the same chemical. More importantly, in this specific example, is that “natural” citral, does not necessarily even mean, that it comes from lemons; it can also come from plants such as lemongrass, or lemon myrtle, which also contain the chemical citral.
Are Artificial and Natural Flavors Bad For You?
Seeing how closely related natural and artificial flavors actually are, which one is better for you? The answer, we actually don’t know. At this point, there isn’t enough evidence to support whether or not artificial or natural flavors are actually bad for you, or not.
What Is The Difference Between Natural Vs Artificial Flavors?
Either or, natural and artificial flavors usually come from similar places and have no distinguishable health implications. Natural flavoring at this point in time is used more for marketing purposes than actually having any specific health implication on the food or supplement you’re consuming.
Natural, sounds wholesome and organic when artificial sounds disingenuous and deceptive. Yet according to the FDA, there is no definition of “natural” as it appears on food and supplement labels, therefore letting marketers use the term so long as the associated product does not contain any added colors, additional flavors or synthetic substances. Therefore whether the product has artificial flavors or is termed as an “All Natural” product, you’ll never actually know the true contents of the flavoring profile or what’s in it. Natural simply means, that one single component of that flavoring, is found in nature when artificial means that a substance has been modified for taste. It is important to remember, however, that both natural and artificial flavors, must go through a refinement process to be produced.
Like the Food And Drug Journal explained, there is no difference between natural vs artificial flavors. Natural flavors contain both artificial and synthetic ingredients just like artificial flavors do. There is no legally binding regulation, on using the word natural on food or supplement packaging. The word natural just sounds better.
Natural Vs. Artificial Flavors: Conclusion
Subsequently, foods should be considered for their nutritional profiles and the associated impact it may have on your health before flavors are even considered. There is no nutritional value in flavor, and there is no difference between natural vs artificial flavors. Therefore whether it’s natural or artificial, there is no nutritional difference or side effects from artificial flavors. Like I said in the beginning, "Same, same, but different."
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- Goodman MJ. The “Natural” vs. “Natural Flavors” Conflict in Food Labeling: A Regulatory Viewpoint. Food Drug Law J. 2017;72(1):78-102.