What is ‘Natural Flavour’ Anyway?
If you’ve read the ingreidents or looked at the food label on any packaged good, you’ve undoudetbly seen the term “natural flavour”, but have you ever wondered what that actually means? Although many people assume natural falvours are simply that; the flavour from the natural source, that is not exactly the case. In fact, natural flavours and artificial flavours have a lot more in common than you may think. So, allow me to break down the research on natural flavours to help you determine if you should be consuming them or not.
What is ‘natural flavour’?
According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, natural flavours are “substances that impart flavours that have been derived from a plant or animal source”, while the FDA defines natural flavours as “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”
While all of that nutrition jargon may seem rather confusing, there are two key points to take away from these definitions; natural flavours must come from plant or animal sources, and natural flavours are created through some form of processing.
Natural Flavours vs. Artificial Flavours
Although one might assume that natural flavours and artificial flavours are very different that is not the case. Natural and artificial flavours are both food additives that food manufacturers can use to flavour food, however, the primary difference between the two is the source from which they are made. Both natural and artificial flavours are created through chemical processes and are manufactured in a lab by a ‘flavourist’, the only difference is the fact that artificial flavours are made from synthetic sources while natural flavours must be made from plant or animal sources.
Understandably, this difference can be confusing to consumers given how similar in nature they actually are. The difference really comes down to the origin of the molecule that was used to create the flavour; was it natural or synthetic? For instance, in the same way you can make a shirt out of polyester or cotton, you can make an apple drink out of artificial apple flavour or natural apple flavour. Although the end flavour may be similar, the source used to create it is very different. Simply put, natural flavours are made from natural sources, but the format in which you are consuming them is not necessarily.
Where do natural flavours come from?
Although many natural flavours originate from the flavour which they provide, not all natural flavours are derived from their natural source. Although there are natural flavours that come directly from the corresponding source, there are hundreds of natural flavours that have been created by food chemists that are in fact from a natural source, but not of the flavour which they are creating. For example, amyl acetate is a compound distilled from bananas to create banana flavour, while natural coconut flavour is made from a compound called massoya lactone which comes from the bark of the Massoya tree grown in Malaysia, while natural vanilla flavour is sometimes made from the slightly sweet substance found in the anal secretions of beavers. Albeit all of the flavours are natural in some way, shape or form, they may not be the natural form of the flavour they are providing.
What foods contain natural flavours?
The use of natural flavour by food manufacturers is so common that they are the fourth most common ingredient listed on food labels. Natural flavours are found in all types of food products and supplements including sauces, cereals, granola bars, herbal teas, flavoured waters, juices, protein powders and greens powders, just to name a few.
At this time, the only way to determine if a product contains natural flavour is to read in the ingredients, however, the most confusing part is that we are unable to determine what the actual source of natural flavour in a product is because food manufacturers aren’t required to list these exact ingredients. Although we can assume that the flavour is from a natural source, it is impossible to determine the specific source without asking the food manufacturer directly.
So, should we eat ‘natural flavour’?
Generally speaking, there is little if any information or studies on the impact of natural flavours, and without knowing the exact source of the natural flavour in question it is certainly tough to say. However, as with most food additives it would be safe to assume that the concern is with the dose. Consumed from time to time in small amounts I don’t see natural flavour being a large concern. As always, the foundation of any good diet is centred around whole foods, and if this it the case, a bit of natural flavour sprinkled in should not be too much of a problem.