Contrary to what some people may think, use of the term “natural flavors” on nutrition labels is not a deceitful tactic by food manufacturers to hide harmful or unappealing flavoring agents.
As any avid label reader knows, navigating ingredient lists these days can be quite a challenge. It seems that one might have to be a chemist to actually know the meaning of some of the words on the nutrition label, let alone their purpose. It’s common to see “natural” or “artificial flavors” among the hard to pronounce list of ingredients. So what are natural and artificial flavors, and why aren’t the individual flavors explicitly identified on labels?
Natural vs. Artificial Flavors
The Code of Federal Regulations defines a 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 (1).” Artificial flavors are defined as those that do not meet these particular standards.
So what does all of this actually mean? The Cliff’s Notes explanation is that natural flavors are found in nature (plant or animal material), while artificial flavors are not. Artificial flavors are chemicals not found in plant or animal material that are created in a lab.
Why use the term “Natural Flavors” on labels
Thousands of natural volatile compounds make up the flavors and aromas of the things we eat. Even simple natural flavors like vanilla can be made up of hundreds of compounds, most of which have very strange sounding chemical names. For example, d-limonene is one of many natural volatile compounds that make citrus taste like citrus (2), and 3-methylbutanal, 3-methyl-l-butanol, and geranial are compounds that help make tomato taste like tomato (3). Listing all of these natural flavor compounds as their official names on a label would not only lead to more confusion, but also look a little scary.
To be included in the ingredient list under the term natural flavors, the flavoring compound must not only give the item its specific taste and be found in nature, but its main purpose should be to give a food flavor rather than to contribute to the food’s nutritional value. Because sweeteners are considered primarily nutritional, they must be disclosed in the ingredient list and cannot be listed as natural flavors. In addition, colors and chemical preservatives (used to enhance the appearance of food and keep it from spoiling) cannot be listed as natural flavors.
Although both MSG and protein hydrolysates are additives that are primarily used as flavor enhancers, they are subject to specific labeling rules that requires their disclosure on ingredient labels. MSG is an isolated salt of the amino acid glutamate, which is used to enhance the savory flavor of foods. While glutamate is found naturally to some degree in nearly all foods (particularly high in cheese, mushrooms, and tomatoes), MSG is an extremely concentrated source. Protein hydrolysates also tend to be naturally higher in glutamate, although are presented with other amino acids and nutrients. Even though they are listed as natural flavors under the Code of Federal Regulations, it’s mandated that they be specifically listed along with their source on the ingredients label. Common types of hydrolysates often appear on labels under such names as “hydrolyzed wheat gluten,” “hydrolyzed soy protein,” and “autolyzed yeast extract.”
The federal regulations that define the term natural flavors and enforce its correct use ensure that it’s used appropriately by manufacturing companies, and not as a way to hide ingredients that might be considered unhealthy. By listing flavoring compounds as natural flavors, consumers are being told what they do (impart flavor), while also making labels appear simpler and less cluttered. In addition, using natural flavors on labels helps to prevent competing manufacturers from creating copy-cat versions of products.
Isagenix only uses Natural Flavors
Rest assured that Isagenix always avoids artificial chemicals, flavors, and sweeteners in all of their products. Where the term “natural flavors” occurs, the purpose is to prevent consumers from being confused by a variety of complex sounding natural compounds.
- FDA Code of Federal Regulations Title 21: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/retrieveECFR?gp=1&SID=4bf49f997b04dcacdfbd637db9aa5839&ty=HTML&h=L&mc=true&n=pt21.2.101&r=PART#se21.2.101_122. Accessed Sept 30, 2013.
- Davidowski et al. The Extraction and Quantification of Limonene from Citrus Rinds. Perkin Elmer, 2009.
- Markovic et al. Aroma volatiles of tomatoes and tomato products. Flavour Fragr, 2007;22:395-400.