What to Know About Artificial and Natural Flavors

Take a peek at almost any packaged food product and you’re likely to spot “artificial flavor” or “natural flavor” on the ingredient list. If you’re unsure what those terms actually mean (and how they differ from each other), you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s start with the basics. According to the FDA, the term “artificial flavor” describes any substance that functions to deliver flavor and “is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof.”

The vetting process for artificial flavors is regulated in part by a group called the Flavor Extract Manufacturers Association that assesses the safety of newly manufactured flavor compounds and presents its findings to the FDA. It’s then up to the FDA to give a new flavor its seal of approval and add it to the list of chemicals that are GRAS (or, generally recognized as safe) for human consumption.

Not surprisingly, this process isn’t always flawless. For example, in 2015 the FDA banned seven artificial flavors approved for human consumption and commonly added to packaged goods like ice cream and chewing gum after research showed the ingredients caused cancer in rats. (To be fair, the rats were given much higher doses of the additives than what is normally present in food products.) So, why would companies use artificial flavors? It comes down to cost, consistency, and flavor profile; artificial flavors tend to be more affordable, more reliable, and tastier than their au naturel alternatives.

About those alternatives: Natural flavors are those that can be made using essential oils, essences, and extracts derived from natural sources, such as spices, fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy products, among others. The catch? Natural flavors actually aren’t all that different from their artificial counterparts. According to experts, natural and artificial flavor compounds are essentially the same molecules, with both being highly processed and manipulated by chemists in laboratory settings. What’s more, neither natural nor artificial flavors offer up any nutritional value. They exist solely to impart flavor.

To ban all foods with natural and artificial flavors from your plate would be almost impossible. The additives are in everything from breakfast cereals and carbonated beverages to protein bars, breads, and yogurts. Instead, make an effort to cook more of your meals at home and use simple ingredients like dried spices and fresh herbs to add flavor (and nutrients!) to your foods. Check the nutrition labels of some of your favorite kitchen staples to see how many contain additives, and consider alternatives with fewer processed ingredients.

Most importantly, if you have any food allergies, be sure to do your homework when it comes to natural flavors. Natural flavors that contain the eight most common allergens (think: milk, eggs, soybeans, tree nuts, etc.) are required to be labeled, but if you’re allergic to other ingredients, you may want to consider contacting manufacturers for more information about the exact chemicals or preservatives added to their flavorings.

Anthea Levi

Jennifer Maeng