With all the focus on food labels, especially as of late, most of the advice we get is “don’t eat what you can’t pronounce” or “don’t eat it if your grandma didn’t have it in her kitchen”. It’s not hard to see the validity in such thinking but it’s extremely difficult to follow these rules to a “t”. But the one labeling term that has always made me wonder (although I guess not that much since I just bothered to look it up)… “natural flavors”.
Natural flavors to me is the very definition of ambiguity. Aren’t we supposed to like natural? We certainly like flavor. So if were talking about a lemon lime soda, wouldn’t the natural flavor just be the lemons and limes? Well it won’t surprise you that when you look into it, natural flavors are not so simple, and seemingly not so natural.
Regulatory Definition: 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.
Turns out the only difference between the “natural” and “artificial” flavor molecules being added is the source of the root chemicals. The flavors are being chemically synthesized either way. But rather than getting into a chemistry lesson, I’ll break it down into a simple analogy…Think of hardwood floors versus laminate “wood” floors. Essentially acting as the same thing, but with very different sources. So are natural flavors better than artificial? Chemically speaking, it seems like the answer to that question is no. I guess really, the best option is neither. But either way, I’m glad the next time I see “natural flavors”, I’ll know what the hell it means.