Why Natural Flavors Are Listed as a Food Additive

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Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Do you ever read the ingredients list on a bag, box, or can of food and wonder what "natural flavors" are and why they're needed? Natural flavors are derived from sources in nature and added to enhance specific flavors in foods. But the label can be misleading. Despite what it sounds like their name suggests, natural flavorings are just as processed as artificial flavors.

What Are Natural Flavors in Food?

Natural flavors, like artificial flavors, are food additives, the main function of which is to add flavor to food. Think of a banana-flavored baked good that doesn't actually have banana listed in the ingredients. Or an almond latte without actual almonds. What gives these foods their flavors and aromas? You guessed it—natural and artificial flavors!

That said, seeing the words "natural flavor" on an ingredients list doesn't really tell you much about what those added flavorings are. While it's easy enough to identify the flavorings in a home recipe, it can be more difficult to know what flavorings are added to processed foods on the whole.

What makes natural flavors "natural" is that they're derived from plants or animals. Artificial flavors, on the other hand, are derived from man-made sources.

However, that doesn't mean natural flavors provide nutrients or energy. Unlike nutrients like fiber, protein, and potassium that provide nutritional value, natural flavoring in food is meant solely to enhance certain flavors, not provide nutrition.

Natural Doesn't Mean Organic

Unless otherwise stated, natural flavors don’t have to come from organic sources. They can also be derived from both GMO and non-GMO sources. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no formal definition of what "natural" means.

Types of Natural Flavors

According to the FDA, natural flavors can refer to any product produced from any of the following:

  • Bark, buds, roots, leaves
  • Dairy products
  • Edible yeast
  • Eggs
  • Fruit or fruit juice
  • Meat, seafood, poultry
  • Spices and herbs
  • Vegetables or vegetable juice

Using these sources, natural flavorings can be produced through fermentation, catalyzing by an enzyme, roasting, or heating any of these plant or animal sources. They can also be found in the form of essential oil, essence, or extract.

Why Flavorings Are Used

Flavor is the combination of the taste and aroma of food, and it's an important characteristic of the foods we eat every day. It's difficult to imagine eating a diet made up of bland, flavorless foods.

Many of the dishes we eat are complex and most contain added ingredients (like salt, pepper, herbs, and spices) to enhance flavor. Enhancing the flavor of foods can make eating appealing and can also help to stimulate appetite, which is essential for people who need to gain weight, like older people who may have lost some of their ability to taste foods.

Do you know how fresh foods taste when you make them at home? Think about fresh bread right from the oven or a yummy vegetable stew simmering on the stove. Homecooked meals are great, but can also be time-consuming, so many people also have convenience foods on hand that taste almost as good as their homemade counterparts.

In order to be convenient, processed foods need to last a long time, and the preservation methods used to accomplish that tend to reduce flavor. So, food manufacturers may add natural flavors to enhance or maintain the flavor of the food after it's processed.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are natural flavors healthier than artificial flavors?

Natural flavorings in food aren't necessarily healthier than artificial flavors. Even though they're made from plant and animal sources rather than man-made sources, they are not nutritionally comparable to whole plant or animal foods. On top of that, natural flavors provide no nutritional value to food.

Both natural and artificial flavors are heavily processed. So rather than focusing on which of these flavorings are healthier, consider incorporating a variety of food types, including fresh and minimally processed foods when possible if it is feasible for your lifestyle, budget, and preferences.

Are natural flavors safer than artificial flavors?

Probably not. Artificial flavors are made from non-food sources, while natural flavors come from foods or other edible things. But after heavy processing, both types of flavorings often end up being about the same and are both considered safe to consume. The FDA determines if flavorings—both natural and artificial—are safe to consume.

Are natural flavors vegetarian or vegan?

Natural flavors can be made from animal products. So unless the manufacturer explicitly states the natural flavors are plant-based or the food product is vegetarian or vegan, there's really no way to know whether any natural flavorings added come from animals or plants.

Is MSG a natural flavoring?

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is a flavor enhancer. If used as an ingredient in food, the FDA requires that it needs to be listed as such, unlike natural and artificial flavorings.

A Word From Verywell

Natural flavorings are used in a wide variety of foods and are sourced from edible elements found in nature. While they're certainly safe to consume, simply listing "natural flavors" on an ingredients list doesn't mean the food product is healthier than foods made with artificial flavors or no added flavors at all. You'll still need to look at the Nutrition Facts label to determine the nutritional value of the product.

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Article Sources
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  2. Saffarionpour S, Ottens M. Recent advances in techniques for flavor recovery in liquid food processingFood Eng Rev. 2018;10,81-94. doi:10.1007/s12393-017-9172-8

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  4. Food and Drug Administration. Generally recognized as safe (GRAS). Updated September 6, 2019.

  5. Food and Drug Administration. Questions and answers on monosodium glutamate (MSG). Updated January 4, 2018.