Here's What "Natural Flavors" Really Means

When you see "natural flavors" on a food label, you're probably thinking about lemons or vanilla, but that is not what it means. The FDA defines natural flavors as anything sourced from an animal or plant, but they don't require food manufacturers to disclose where exactly those flavors come from.

According to Sally Kuzemchak, a registered dietician who wrote for WedMD, natural flavors are a combination of several different ingredients that include stabilizers and preservatives. Those other ingredients don't have to come from natural sources. Part of the natural flavors concoction could contain ingredients derived from meat, eggs, vegetables, fruit, roots, and herbs.

Vegans would want to avoid any natural flavors from animals, but it's nearly impossible to know where the natural flavors come from in a specific food. Then there are people with food allergies who need to avoid certain ingredients. Kuzemchak points out that sesame can be labeled as a natural flavor. Still, some people are allergic to sesame and are sometimes unable to find out if the natural flavor contains sesame. Fortunately, the FDA is considering having food companies specify whether something contains sesame.

Should you eat foods with natural flavors?

"Natural flavors" is commonly listed high on the ingredients label of processed foods. On less processed foods, you'll find the term at the bottom of the ingredient list, which means it's a smaller ingredient by weight than the others. When in doubt, just ask: Kusemchak recommends contacting the manufacturer directly if you need to know what is in their natural flavoring. 

According to Healthline, natural flavors also often contain chemical additives and highly processed ingredients. Natural flavors aren't always much different than artificial flavors. 

Only one ingredient in the "natural flavors" composition has to come from an animal or plant. There could be over a hundred different chemicals, preservatives, solvents, or other substances that make up the natural flavors. They can even contain flavors derived from genetically modified plants. 

If you want to avoid food with the "natural flavors" phrase, choose unsweetened versions of yogurt, sparkling water, oatmeal, or other foods and drinks, and add your own sweetener. Use lemon juice, fruits, maple syrup, or anything else you like.