What's In A Name? A Lot When The Ingredient Is "Natural Flavor"

With the nation finally realizing healthy food doesn’t come in a box, food manufacturers are desperate to convince shoppers processed foods are good for them. The word “natural flavors” is EVERYWHERE, and even though it looks so nonchalant on an ingredients list, what does it mean, exactly?

FDA’s Complicated Definition of “Natural Flavors”

Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) makes the definition of “natural flavors” complicated. Get a load of this definition, according to the FDA:

Natural flavors can include: “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.”

What does this mean? This very broad definition just means the source originally came from a natural source before it went through many chemical processes, as opposed to artificial, which isn’t a natural origin.

What Foods Contain "Natural Flavors"?

I think you’ll be shocked to see "natural flavors" in so many products, including ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, soups, pickles, chocolate, spices, baked goods, and foods that come in boxes or bags. The Environmental Working Group’s Food Scores database contains over 80,000 foods, and “natural flavor” is the fourth most common ingredient listed on the label! The only ingredients that outrank it are: salt, water and sugar, but "natural flavor" isn’t nearly as simple as these three pantry staples. 

One caveat, when the label says something like “natural flavor (peppermint),” the manufacturer is telling you they use the food ingredient “peppermint” as the actual natural flavoring. If it doesn’t specifically say what the natural flavor is, look for another product without it.

Hidden Trouble in “Natural Flavors”

If the label doesn’t specify what the “natural flavor” ingredient is, be leery. It’s a shame because “natural” almost creates a false sense of healthiness and safety. Technically, “natural flavors” means you could be eating GMO fruits or vegetables, or even a pig, cow, turkey, chicken, or lamb which was given growth hormones, fed GMO, pesticide-laden corn and grain, and then shot up with antibiotics due to infections and diseases from living in horrible conditions and confines.

Some people would claim “natural flavors” actually cause an addiction to these foods by using the best part of a taste or even smell, which leads to food cravings.

Three Shocking Ingredients labeled “Natural Flavor”

Take a look at three unappealing ingredients food companies in the United States can label “natural flavor.”

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Ingredients such as “monosodium glutamate,” and “hydrolyzed” proteins are required by the FDA to be disclosed on the food label, but over 40 other MSG-containing ingredients are not, and can be hiding in your food as “natural flavor.” Natural flavor can legally contain naturally occurring “glutamate” bi-products like MSG, which are known excitotoxins.

Excitotoxins are a class of chemicals that overstimulate neuron receptors in the brain. Neuron receptors allow brain cells to communicate with each other, but when they're exposed to excitotoxins, they fire impulses at such a rapid rate they become exhausted.

This effects your hunger and health because these excitotoxins can cause your taste buds to experience irresistibility when it comes to food. 


Never heard of it? Wait until you find out what it means! Castoreum is really an extraction of the dried glands and secretions from a beaver’s rear end (and that’s putting it politely)!!! Horrible! This ingredient is used in a variety of foods and beverages that need a vanilla smell or flavor, such as baked goods, frozen dairy treats, and pudding. Yum! Just what I want to eat and feed my family! It’s classified as a natural food flavor because it comes from an animal source, but who in the world would choose to eat that if they actually knew it was in their food?!

In fact, if you’re thinking of going into the food business and need some “natural flavor” castoreum for your ice cream, you need go no further than www.castoreum.com, where Agro Laboratory, a “leading supplier” will sell you some.

Confectioner’s Glaze

This actually sounds like an appetizing ingredient, but besides the name, there isn’t anything close to appealing about it. This ingredient is basically bug juice, obtained by scraping the secretions, called “lac,” of a very small red bug off tree bark. The female secretes the sticky substance to make a protective shell to lay her eggs. Doesn’t sound so appetizing now, does it? Confectioner’s glaze is used in products such as candies (Hershey’s Milk Duds, for example), cosmetics and chewing gum.

Ingredients that cannot be termed as “natural flavors” include artificial flavor, added or artificial color, or synthetic substances.

If I can persuade you to do one thing, it’s to always read the ingredients on the label before purchasing a food. Ignoring ingredients can end up being very hazardous to your health.

In Health and Happiness,

Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods



FDA "natural flavor" food labeling: http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=101.22

FDA "natural flavor" explanation: http://www.fda.gov/aboutfda/transparency/basics/ucm214868.htm

Monosodium Glutamate Labeling Regulations: http://www.truthinlabeling.org/V.RegulatoryHistory.html



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