If you’ve become an adept label reader, you may have noticed that at the end of a string of ingredients, you’ll often find the mysterious indication of “natural” or “artificial” flavors. While you many know artificial is never a good indication of health, what about so-called natural flavors? Here’s a hint – they’re far from natural, and that's the least of your worries.
While natural flavors might sound better than the alternative, it turns out that natural and artificial flavors are nearly one and the same. That’s because while natural flavors are derived from whole food ingredients – often fruits or vegetables – in reality, they’re made up of the exact same chemical compounds as their artificial counterparts.
“The natural comes from the source for the ingredients or chemicals that were used to make the flavor,” explains David Andrews, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. “So you may have two flavors that are identical: one natural and one artificial, and they actually have the same chemicals in them.”
Aside from the chemicals that create the aroma in the substance, artificial and natural flavor agents also include solvents and preservatives. Andrews notes that a flavor component – even a “natural” one – may contain up to 100 different chemicals.
What’s more, a natural flavoring might not even come from the food it’s trying to emulate. Popular Science recently reported that a company in the UK was using chemicals found in oranges to create grapefruit flavoring, and a Boston company was engineering yeast to make vanilla flavoring. This isn't because scientists can’t make these flavors artificially, but because consumers (and companies looking to appease them) are demanding the word “natural” on products without knowing – or even asking – what it is they’re truly getting.
“Nature goes ahead and makes those that are in apples, oranges, pears… and in fact a chemist makes those same chemicals by other means,” Gary Reineccius, a professor in Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, told Popular Science.
This may seem a bit worrisome, especially when you know that according to the Environmental Working Group’s Food Scores Database of over 80,000 foods, natural flavors are the fourth most common ingredient listed on labels, outranked only by salt, water, and sugar. But in reality, Andrews says, neither artificial nor natural flavorings are toxic or particularly harmful for you.
That said, there is a true health risk linked with the widespread use of these flavorings that stems from the fact that they are used, primarily, to create an artificial uniformity in food.
"It's to make sure that you have the exact same tasting food products across the country, any time of year," Andrews tells CNN. "To make a short intense flavor that quickly dissipates so you come back for more.”
Not only does this uniformity make consumers forget what foods are actually supposed to taste like, the intense burst of flavor can make the foods using these flavorings – from candies to juices to super-sweet cereals – addictive.
“Where I think the health concern could actually be is the use of these natural or artificial flavors to change people's eating behavior and to entice people into eating foods that are less healthy,” says Andrews. “The goal of these ingredients is often to make food more palatable, and the ultimate goal is to make the food more addictive.”
The ultimate concern, then, isn’t really whether these ingredients are coming from artificial or “natural” sources – it’s the fact that so many consumers need additives to make their food palatable in the first place. It's for this reason that we as consumers would do well to choose foods without added flavorings – be they natural or artificial.
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