What are natural flavours and
should you avoid them?

I can’t tell you the amount of times I have been asked “What are natural flavours?” and “Should I avoid them?” This has been a topic I have been meaning to blog about for such a long time! It isn’t a simple answer and needs a detailed and considered reply. 
I have been reading and examining ingredient labels for over 10 years. Natural flavours has become the most popular ingredient in that time. When I first started, there were very few products that listed natural flavour. Now, this ingredient has reached saturation point. It is in EVERYTHING!
According to the Environmental Working Group, ‘natural flavours’ is the fourth most common ingredient used in processed foods. [1] The only ingredients that are more common are salt, water and sugar! 

What does natural flavour mean?

Natural flavour is very vague isn’t it?! Do we actually know what it means?
Research has shown that when ‘natural’ appears on food packaging, people form positive opinions about the product [2]. Manufacturers rely on this association. What most people don’t realise is that natural flavours are also created in a lab. They are created by specially trained food chemists known as flavourists.
The word “natural” has no formal legal definition.
The Flavour and Fragrance Association of Australian and New Zealands (CAC/GL 66-2008 item 2.2.1) defines Flavouring Substances as:
“Flavouring substances are chemically-defined substances either formed by chemical synthesis, or obtained from materials of plant or animal origin”
It further defines Natural Flavouring substances (CAC/FL 66-2008 item as:
“flavouring substances obtained by physical processes that may result in unavoidable but unintentional changes in the chemical structure of the components of the flavouring (eg distillation and solvent extraction), or by enzymatic or microbiological processes, from material of plant or animal origin. Such material may be unprocessed, or processed for human consumption by traditional food preparation processes (eg drying, torrefaction (roasting) and fermentation). This means substances that have been identified / detected in a natural material of animal or vegetable origin’

Natural flavouring complexes (CAC/GL 66-2008 item 2.2.2) are defined as:

“preparations that contain flavouring substances obtained by physical processes that may result in unavoidable but unintentional changes in the chemical structure of the flavouring (eg. distillation and solvent extraction) or by enzymatic or microbiological processes, from material of plain or animal origin. Such material may be unprocessed, processed for human consumption by traditional food preparation processes (eg. drying, torrefaction (roasting) and fermentation).  Natural flavouring complexes including the essential oil, essence of extractive, protein hydrylolsate, distillate or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis”
Did you realise that natural flavours could be subjected to so many different forms of processing?

What is in natural flavours?

We actually don’t know!  Manufacturers are not required to disclose the ingredients used in ‘natural flavours’.  This one ‘natural flavour’ ingredient could actually comprise 5, 10, 20, 50 or 100 different ingredients!We have no way of knowing and the manufacturers are not obliged to tell us. 

Don’t you think we have a right to know what we are eating?Manufacturers get a free pass when it comes to flavours.  The same rules do not apply! The use of flavours isn’t subject to the same laws as food additives (even though flavours may contain the very same additives!) 

Why is this?

The chemical composition is too complex. You can read this to also mean….the list would be too long and it wouldn’t fit on the ingredient label!


Why are natural flavours added?

1. Processing removes flavour

Manufacturers have a tough job keeping their product fresh for a long period of time. The product needs to stay fresh travelling from manufacturers to supermarket. shelves. Then the product needs to stay fresh for a period of time on the supermarket shelves.
To ensure that food can last that long it needs to be heavily processed. This processing often results in compromised or reduced flavours. Flavours are added to maintain that original flavour after the processing has occurred.

2. Natural flavours are cheaper than real ingredients

Natural flavours are also added as they are a much cheaper substitute than the real deal. Let’s look at vanilla as an example. Vanilla at the moment is VERY expensive. Very few manufacturers use the real vanilla.
Most people don’t realise that all the different types of vanilla that they see on ingredient lists don’t originate from the vanilla bean. How can this be?
Back in the 1970s, a German chemist called Wilhelm Haarmann discovered that he could produce a substance from pine cones that replicated the flavour of vanilla. That substance is now known as ‘vanillin’.  Vanillin is not the same as vanilla. 
This discovery turned what was a very expensive product into something cheap and common. Using vanilla extracts or vanilla flavour enable manufacturers to keep costs down.
I can tell you from reviewing thousands and thousands of products on supermarket shelves there are so many forms of vanilla that you will find on ingredient labels!
Examples of different vanilla ingredients are:
Vanilla extract
Vanilla flavour
Natural vanilla flavouring
Vanilla powder
They are all different and you can’t tell from the label whether the vanilla came from the vanilla bean, a pine cone or coal tar! We don’t know how it has been processed or extracted just from reading the label. It is complicated business!
There are so many questions that need to be asked about one simple ingredient! Who is going to do all that research? The average consumer doesn’t have time to decipher all this! And this is just ONE ingredient on the ingredient list, imagine all the other natural flavours!
I am highly passionate about cutting through and finding the truth and sharing it with the Additive Free Kids community. It is my passion and mission!

3. Natural flavours sounds healthier

As we mentioned in the beginning, we know that when consumers see the word ‘natural’ they perceive it to be a healthier product.

So what does all that mean? Are natural flavours better for us than artificial flavours?

Not necessarily.
Artificial flavours are made from non food sources. Whilst the natural flavours start from natural food sources, the amount of processing and manipulation that they go through results in a product that is very different from the original source.
Both natural and artificial flavours are made in a lab. The Environmental Working Group reports that natural flavours are chemical mixtures which are often more complex than artificial flavours. 
“Natural flavours still contain solvents, emulsifiers and preservatives, all of which are lumped into the category of ‘incidental additives’ and are not required to be disclosed by food manufacturers’

This is shocking….however, it is very true.

I have asked thousands of questions of manufacturers. Especially about flavours. I have often found that solvents or other chemical ingredients are used to extract the flavour. This results in a natural flavour that is FAR removed from its initial source.

In the words of Gary Reineccious a professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota, he explains: 

“There is little substantive difference in the chemical compositions of natural and artificial flavourings. 

They are both made in a laboratory by a trained professional, a ‘flavourist”, who blends appropriate chemicals together in the right proportions.

The flavourist uses ‘natural’ chemicals to make natural flavourings and ‘synthetic’ chemicals to make artificial flavourings.

The flavourist creating an artificial flavouring must use the same chemicals in his formulation as would be used to make a natural flavouring.  Otherwise, the flavouring will not have the desired flavour.”

What does this mean:
To extract the flavour from the original botanical source, solvents, emulsifiers and preservatives may be used that aid in separating the natural flavour complex.
“Consumers pay a lot for natural flavourings. But these are in fact no better in quality, nor are they safer, than their cost effective artificial counterparts.”
David Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group states that:
“The mixture will often have some solvent and preservatives – and that makes up to 80-90% of the volume [of the flavouring]. In the end product, it’s a small amount, but it still has artificial ingredients.”
Dhyaneshwar B. Chawan, PhD, is the president of SRIM Enterprises, a food research company that formulates natural flavours for a variety of food and beverage companies.
He maintains that solvents, emulsifiers and preservatives have to be added as:

“you have to preserve whats made so the flavour doesn’t change. 
Oxygen can change the food and it can become bitter, and even poisonous, so adding enzymes that are a catalyst to this change (prevents that)”

In addition to their original flavour source, these mixtures can contain more than 100 different chemicals, including preservatives, solvents and other substances. These are ‘incidental additives’.

Manufacturers are not obligated to share these with you either.

In addition to their original flavour source, these mixtures can contain more than 100 different chemicals, including preservatives, solvents and other substances.  These are ‘incidental additives’.

Manufacturers are not obligated to share these with you either.

The short of it is: we really do not know what is included in flavours. Given that so many manufacturers are cagey about the ingredients of their flavours, you can assume that they are trying to hide other ingredients that they don’t want you to know about.

We don’t need natural flavours

Real ingredients don’t need flavours. Real ingredients taste amazing on their own. Combinations of real ingredients can taste even better. When you are using wholefood ingredients you cannot beat the flavour! Go straight to the source for your flavour.

So what should you do now?

To find out more or avoid natural flavours you can:

1) Call or email the manufacturer

You can call or email the manufacturer to find out more about their natural flavours. The more people that contact them the better!
I can probably save you some time though!
I must’ve called or emailed hundreds of manufacturers about thousands of products. When it comes to flavours you will never get a straight answer. The answers always come down to these three responses:

“Sorry, we can’t give you any further information, there is intellectual proprietary surrounding that ingredient”

“We are not required to give you that information…”

“Sorry that is our trade secret…”

I have even offered to manufacturers that I sign a confidentiality agreement. This agreement would contract me to secrecy about the ingredients in their natural flavours. With this knowledge I would be able to advise the community whether that product was additive free or not. EVERY SINGLE TIME my offer is declined.
Why? Because the manufacturer is not being transparent…they are hiding something.
For those manufacturers that are reading this, and are doing the right thing, please be as transparent as possible. Some manufacturers will list cinnamon for example as a natural flavour. Do yourself a favour and list it for what it is…. Anything labelled with natural flavour will be given a wide berth.  Be as transparent as possible. 

2) Read ingredient labels

If you see natural flavour or ANY flavour on a product, put it back. It has no place in our food. Vote with your dollar and reward the manufacturers that are doing the right thing.
If the manufacturers are unable to be transparent about the ingredients in their product you have to consider:
Is that ingredient there for your benefit or theirs?
I can tell you – flavours added to a product are there for the manufacturers benefit not yours.
Natural flavours from flavour houses are sold to manufacturers as a ‘healthier choice” These flavour houses know that consumers are moving towards natural ingredients and want clean labeling. They believe they have responded by creating natural flavours. These are sold as being cost effective and high quality. Don’t be fooled!

3) Limit your consumption of processed foods

If you are sticking with wholefood products you will minimise your exposure to these flavours. Do the processing in your own kitchen rather than a lab or factory doing it for you.

4) Vote with your dollar

It is important to remember that you as the consumer have the power. When you vote with your dollar, brands are forced to respond.
Whenever you see natural flavours or artificial flavours, pop the product back on the shelf. Send a message back to the manufacturers that you want transparent ingredient lists.
You want to know what is in your food.
If they can’t disclose that information, then you will vote with your dollar to support the manufacturers that are doing the right thing.
I hope that has been helpful in clearing the confusion surrounding natural flavours. I would love to hear your thoughts, did this blog help you!
Frankie Bell is the Managing Director of Additive Free Kids, a food coach, mentor and is one of Australia’s leading activists against additives in foods.  
Frankie is a mum to 5 boys and has personal experience working through the damaging effects of additives to resolve the multiple health issues and behavioural problems in her own children.  It became Frankie’s purpose to help other families achieve the same improvements for their families. 
These changes can be overwhelming, especially for time poor parents, Frankie has done all the hard work for families to ensure they have access to additive free food, anytime, anywhere.    Additive Free Kids specialises in assisting families to live healthy lives free from additives.  See how you can work together with Frankie here.

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