You may have heard that natural flavors aren’t always 100% natural.
What are natural flavors?
Whereas artificial flavors use man-made chemicals to flavor or scent a product, natural flavors are defined by government regulation as flavors “that derive their aroma or flavor chemicals from plant or animal sources, including fruit, meat, fish, spices, herbs, roots, leaves, buds or bark that are distilled, fermented or otherwise manipulated in a lab.”
The issue is that in nonorganic foods, natural flavors can include less-than-natural preservatives, solvents, emulsifiers, carriers and many other additives that are used to create a “natural” flavor. And flavor manufacturers aren’t required to disclose those ingredients.
The rules for natural flavors in certified organic foods are much more strict: they must use non-petroleum-based solvents, cannot be irradiated and cannot use flavor extracts derived from genetically engineered crops. They also cannot use synthetic solvents, carriers, emulsifiers or artificial preservatives.
When the ingredients actually say “organic flavors” or “organic natural flavors,” these are even more pure, restricted almost entirely to the use of organic ingredients.
While I do think you need to be cautious of them, I don’t believe you need to automatically avoid any food that contains them. They’re not always harmful — if I see it listed on a product I want to try, I’ll look up the FAQs on the company’s website. More often than not I’ve found it to be explained there, especially if it’s a company with good practices. If they’re forthcoming and say that they’re all organic, food-based ingredients, I’ll go for it. If they don’t mention it at all, or their answer is more vague than that, I’ll skip it.
Bottom line: While it’s best to just avoid “natural flavors” to be on the safe side, unless you’re preparing all of your own food, you’re going to run into them from time to time, so do your research and choose wisely.