“Made with natural flavor” is slapped on countless cereal boxes, bottled beverages and even candy wrappers. Jelly Belly jelly beans: made with natural flavors. La Croix sparkling water: made with natural flavors. Even Girl Scout Cookies make the vague claim. But for all its ubiquitousness, what exactly is natural flavor?
Although the term is meant to imbue foods with a beneficial halo implying health and nutrition, the inclusion of natural flavor doesn’t in any way mean that a product is actually good for you. Products that boast natural flavor on their packaging can still be chock full of artificial sweeteners, trans fats, genetically-modified proteins, and any other number of nutritional boogeymen. To be naturally flavored doesn’t even preclude something from also being artificially flavored.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines natural flavor 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.”
What a mouthful! If that definition sounds all-encompassing to you, you’re not alone. Food manufacturers take full advantage of the generous FDA natural flavor guidelines at every conceivable opportunity when it comes to marketing products meant for consumption. The Environmental Working Group even found that among 80,000 food products studied, only salt, water and sugar appear on nutrition labels more often than natural flavor. In meaning nearly anything, it effectively means nothing.
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In perhaps a signal that the FDA recognizes the manner in which companies may take advantage of this purposefully broad term, the food watchdog does flex its regulatory muscles on the font size used to market natural flavors on packaging. In the event that a company is dubiously using natural flavor to distract from a lack of an ingredient consumers would reasonably associate with a food – like a strawberry-less strawberry shortcake – the FDA says:
“The word ‘natural’…shall be immediately followed by the word ‘flavored’ in letters not less than one-half the height of the letters in the name of the characterizing flavor, e.g., ‘natural strawberry flavored shortcake,’ or ‘strawberry flavored shortcake.'”
That’ll teach ‘em! But things get even trickier still, as manufacturers aren’t actually required to list which of the oils, distillates, essences, juices or other food products are included to create a discernible natural flavor. And up to 100 different sources can be used to create a product’s singular natural flavor. Complicating matters even further, the FDA considers more than 3,000 chemical food additives to be, you guessed it, natural flavors.
So what is natural flavor, really? It’s an essential oil, or an essence, or a product of fermentation, or one of 3,000 chemical additives, or actually 100 different things vaguely related to food all conveniently (and anonymously) lumped together to form a cohesive taste reminiscent of a single real world flavor. Or, to put it another way, mostly just a lot of marketing speak.