What Exactly Are “Natural Flavors”?

Published on July 11, 2022

If you’ve taken a look at labels of packaged foods lately, chances are you’ve seen “natural flavors” listed as an ingredient. We often think of the term “natural” as synonymous with health, but when it comes to natural flavors, this isn’t exactly the case.

What exactly are natural flavors and how are they produced?

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), natural flavors are substances derived from manipulation of plant or animal material, used for flavoring rather than providing nutritional value. Essentially, they make packaged foods and beverages more desirable and flavorful. Some argue that food and beverage companies add natural flavors to their products to make them addictive. While there isn’t definitive research exploring this, it is certainly conceivable. Plus, it’s in the best interest of food companies to make their products as tasty as possible to keep consumers coming back for more.

Natural flavors are made via heating, enzyme extraction, fermentation, or other manipulation of a variety of materials including:

  • Spices
  • Fruit or fruit juice
  • Vegetables or vegetable juice
  • Edible yeast
  • Herbs, bark, buds, roots, leaves or similar plant material
  • Meat
  • Seafood
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products and fermentation products

What’s the difference between natural flavors and artificial flavors?

Natural and artificial flavors serve the same purpose of imparting flavor without any nutritional value. The main difference between the two is artificial flavors are derived from chemically synthesized substances and natural flavors are derived from plant and animal materials.

Despite the fact that natural flavors are derived from “natural” materials, they go through the same processing methods as artificial flavors. Additionally, similar to artificial flavors, natural flavors may contain undesirable chemical additives, referred to as “incidental additives.” These include preservatives, emulsifiers, flavor modifiers, and more. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), natural flavors may be comprised of up to 80-90% chemical additives. For those particularly sensitive to food additives, this can be problematic. While food manufacturers must list the ingredients their products contain on the label, flavor manufacturers are not required to disclose the plant or animal material from which their flavors are derived, nor do they have to disclose all the additives present in the natural flavoring unless any of these additives or ingredients contain one of the top 8 (soon to be 9) allergens. These include peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, dairy, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish (and soon to be sesame). So if you have a peanut allergy, for example, a food that contains natural flavors derived from peanuts must list peanuts on the ingredient list or state “contains peanuts” on the food label. If you have a more obscure allergy or intolerance, however, you’re out of luck, and won’t know exactly what is in the natural flavoring unless you’re able to contact the food company directly to inquire.  

It is also worth noting that the FDA has not yet established a formal definition for the term “natural.” With a lack of clear guidelines for what constitutes “natural,” it seems that natural flavors may not be so natural after all. In fact, they aren’t much different from artificial flavors.

That said, natural flavors found in certified organic foods are subject to more stringent regulations. Organic natural flavors are not permitted to contain certain chemically synthesized additives, petroleum solvents, or genetically modified ingredients, and irradiation is prohibited. So if you’re going to consume natural flavors, organic natural flavors may be a more “natural” option compared to their conventional counterparts, but still pose a potential risk for those with food allergies.

What foods contain natural flavors?

Natural flavors can be found in many different foods and beverages. From flavored seltzer to soda, sports drinks, protein shakes, yogurt, ice cream, candy, baked goods, cereals, chips, crackers, protein bars, protein powders, pasta sauces, salad dressings, canned soups, frozen meals, and more.

Should you avoid them?

While consuming natural flavors in moderation is likely benign, if naturally flavored foods or beverages are a staple in your diet, it may be worthwhile to look into some alternatives. Additionally, since the ingredients found in natural flavors are not required to be disclosed on food labels, certain naturally flavored products may not be safe for those with severe food allergies to consume, particularly if you have uncommon food allergies. If you fall into this category or if you follow a therapeutic diet for a medical reason, you may want to consider contacting the food company directly before consuming the product. This way, you can inquire about what the natural flavors are derived from and the specific additives they contain. Alternatively, you can air on the side of caution and simply avoid foods and beverages containing natural flavors.

Although most natural flavors are derived from plant materials, it is possible for natural flavors to be derived from animal products. For this reason, those following a strict vegan or vegetarian diet may also consider avoiding natural flavors or inquiring about the source of natural flavors before consuming a naturally flavored product.

Lastly, those following the elimination phase of the low FODMAP diet and those avoiding fructans in the maintenance phase of the low FODMAP diet should be cautious when consuming savory foods that contain natural flavors. This is because natural flavors may indicate onion or garlic powder depending on the food item, both of which are high FODMAP, as they contain fructans. Fructans are types of carbohydrates that are highly fermentable by our gut bacteria and may trigger gastrointestinal symptoms in those with IBS. If the food contains less than 2% of natural flavors, however, it is generally still considered low FODMAP, as this amount of a high FODMAP ingredient is likely too small to impact GI symptoms.

Tips for avoiding them

Natural flavors are difficult to avoid, as they are one of the most prevalent food additives and may even be hiding in “health foods” that have otherwise undergone relatively minimal processing.

The easiest way to avoid natural flavors is to predominantly consume foods that do not come from a package. When you do purchase packaged foods, it’s helpful to carefully review ingredient lists.

If you choose to avoid natural flavors, the Fig mobile app can help you do this with ease!

The Bottom Line

Despite what their name implies, natural flavors aren’t much different from artificial flavors. For the average person, consuming foods and beverages containing natural flavors from time to time is unlikely to cause adverse health effects, but those with severe food allergies, sensitivities, or other dietary restrictions may need to avoid them. Doing your own investigative research to find out exactly what is in the natural flavoring of a particular food or beverage is helpful in determining whether or not the product is safe for you to consume. Additionally, reviewing ingredient lists on food labels can help you minimize your intake of natural flavors, or avoid them if you so choose.

Rachel Dyckman
Registered Dietitian