If you ever scoured the aisles of baby snacks, you probably came across this marketing phrase: “natural flavors” or “no artificial flavors”. I had to stop and ask: what are natural flavors, really? Are they much better than artificial ones? Our team and I dug a little deeper, and what we found was quite interesting yet very alarming.
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the top four ingredients in processed foods are water, salt, sugar, and.. you guessed it: natural flavors. It’s that common! Wow.
What’s the difference between natural flavors and artificial flavors?
While artificial flavors are made from synthetic compounds, natural flavors are made from plant or animal sources. Before we get too carried away, let’s clarify: the base of natural flavors is from plant/animal sources but synthetic chemicals are still added to it to make the flavor! A natural flavor does not mean it’s purely from plant or animal sources.
What’s worse is that while artificial flavors are subject to the food additive law, natural flavors are not. Natural flavors are considered a trade secret and thus don’t even have to have the components listed in the ingredients section of the product label. A natural flavor can sometimes be made up of more than 60 components! Artificial flavors, on the other hand, have to have the components listed in the ingredients section of a product label.
Both natural and artificial flavors are created in a lab by food chemists, so are they really that different? I would argue that they’re more similar than they are different.
Should I trust the word “natural” on product labels?
In short, no. The word ‘natural’ is used very loosely, and the FDA has not even defined what the word ‘natural’ tangibly means. A natural product essentially means nothing for both baby food and adult food.
Why do companies use natural flavors?
Excessive manufacturing processes reduce the flavor in a product, so flavor often has to be added back into the product to improve the taste. Flavoring is way cheaper to add in than the actual ingredient. This can contribute to major savings in large quantities. Moreover, using the phrase “natural flavors only” sounds amazing from a marketing perspective. It makes you think there are no additives when in fact there is. Exactly what manufacturers want!
Remember this: real food doesn’t need a flavor boost. Real food tastes amazing on its own.
Here’s a famous example: McDonald’s “natural beef flavor” is actually derived from wheat and milk - not meat! Doesn’t that say something?