Flavor Additives & FDA's Definition Of "Natural Flavorings"

(BeWellBuzz) I needed to take a deep breath. After reading an article where the author briefly assured me of the meaninglessness of the word all-natural, I went into a frenzy of research to find out for myself whether this serious accusation was true.

Weeding out a lot of noise I discovered that it pays to either be willing to do hours (and hours) of research on a hunch; OR, to know someone trustworthy who gets paid to do so. If you’re thinking the latter, I might be your girl. I did get to the truth about all-natural food claims, at least for the time being. To read the report and find out whether your trusted brand should actually be trusted, check out the link at the end of this article.

After I got clear on natural, I found myself plunged into a sea of argument, debate, anecdotal evidences of laypersons, and scientific “facts” from experts, all regarding the truth about flavor additives, and most of which seemed to rage against that intangible, invisible but very real substance called common sense.

Simply put, on the lay-side, there’s a lot of heated language with little evidence to back their opinions. Some statements flare with a religious indignation but turn out to be untrue. Others hold water.  Scientists, on the other hand, have lots of evidence, but I had to become expert at discerning just what they were, and what, subtly, were not saying. There was a note of sophistry in that camp.

After pouring myself over all the data and pruning away a ton of distracting “evidence,” I’ve developed for us a two-part series report, hopefully to help clarify the real issues and offer some answers.

In this part of the series you’ll learn:

a) What people are debating, and which concerns may hold water

b) How a flavor is technically defined

c) How a natural flavor is defined so you can walk into the market educated

1.  The Debate – Popular Notions

  • “Eating Flavor Additives is Like Consuming Antifreeze”

If you’re in this group, you’re not alone. People holding this type of view imagine that consuming artificial flavors is like eating plastic or drinking mercury. Once hearing that a flavor component is also present in, say, antifreeze, they freak out, as if that means the flavor contains antifreeze. This is invalid. Cement contains water. That doesn’t mean that drinking water is the same as consuming cement. There are parts of flavor additives that are also present in inedible substances. That doesn’t mean that the flavor is also inedible.

  • “Artificial Flavors Are Identical to Natural Flavors”

Unlike artificial colorings, food chemists assert that for a substance to imitate a flavor, it must be made of the same natural parts as the original source. As expert, Dr. Gary Reineccius writes, “if a consumer purchases an apple beverage that contains an artificial flavor, she will ingest the same primary chemicals that she would take in if she had chosen a naturally flavored apple beverage.”[1] Here, Reineccius and many others suggest that natural and artificial flavorings provide the same chemical components with insignificant difference.

This is a key element of the debate, and a vital factor in determining whether artificial flavors are more or less healthy than natural. We’ll talk more about it in the next segment when we discuss the meaning of “artificial” flavoring.

  • “Artificial Flavorings are Safer than Natural flavors”

Reineccius continued, “Yes. Artificial flavorings are simpler in composition and potentially safer because only safety-tested components are utilized.” Reineccius argues that the dangerous, allergenic, or just undesirable parts of natural additives can be eliminated, while the man-made version uses only the good stuff, and none of the bad. That it’s “safer” is speculation, which is why he uses the verbiage “potentially safer.” It could be, but there are too many unknown factors to say-so conclusively. Really what he’s saying is that we can exert more control over the synthetic substance, and that more control means security. Perhaps you agree with his line of thought? Or disagree?

From here it’ll help to start speaking Reineccius’ language and find out how food chemists, and the FDA, define a natural flavor.

2.  What’s in a Flavor?

  • Edible chemical. A flavor is an edible chemical compound.
  • Flavor is not the same as taste. The flavor chemicals of foods are aromatics. Humans experience flavor primarily through smell. While taste is limited to the 7 taste sensations,[2] aroma is essence is virtually limitless, or at least countless.
  • Flavors add no calories or other nutrients that food makers are required to list on their nutritional labels.

The experts who are responsible for adding flavors to food products are called flavorists.

3. What is a “Natural” Flavor?

A natural flavor is an edible chemical compound that emits a fragrance. The FDA has given us a lengthy, wordy definition. [3] Simplified, it says that the expression natural flavor applies if it

a)  is intended for flavor and not nutritional purposes,

b)  comes from a plant or animal source,

c)  in the form of essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, and

d)  is derived either directly from the raw matter or after it’s heated, roasted or fermented.

This doesn’t mean that natural vanilla flavor always comes from a vanilla bean. The only way to be assured that vanilla came from the title source is if you see pure vanilla extract on the label. In that case, the vanilla bean was steeped in alcohol until its flavor was extracted. (The most pure and rich flavor additives would be essential oils, but these are much more costly, and have too brief a shelf-life for most products.)

If it’s not a pure extract, food chemists create their own proprietary natural flavors. Natural doesn’t mean that it fell off a tree. The flavorist will identify the “primary” chemical constituents in an essence and extract it from any plant or animal source, or any combination of these, of their choosing. In the case of vanilla, a source unrelated to the vanilla bean has been famously used. It’s on the GRAS list.[4] It’s called castoreum. And it comes from a beaver’s ass.

Yes, you read correctly and yes, it’s really true. Castoreum is commonly found in the commercially approved foods you love, including vanilla ice cream. (To see a fairly recent study on the safety of castoreum, and just in case you didn’t believe me, check out the scientific study below.[5]) According to FDA requirements, manufactures aren’t required to announce the presence of animal products in their natural flavors, a calamity to vegans and vegetarians, and the reason why it’s so vital to stay informed.


[1] Gary Reineccius, professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota. “What is the difference between artificial and natural flavors?” (2002)  “Ask the Experts.” Scientific American.
[2] The 7 main taste sensations experienced through gustatory perception are sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami (savory), pungent and metallic.
[4] Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS)
[5] Burdock, GA. “Safety assessment of castoreum extract as a food ingredient.” (2007) PMID: 17365147

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