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How natural are “natural flavors”?

I’m always wary when I see a listing for “natural flavors” on an ingredient list. If it’s so natural, why don’t they just say “vanilla beans,” or “cola beans,” or “strawberries.” Because you often won’t find any trace of anything natural in an ingredient list for “natural flavors,” that’s why.

My friend, Nonna Joann Bruso, publishes an informative little e-zine about raising healthy eaters called “Baby Bites.” In her latest issue she lists all the ingredients that make up the “natural flavors” in a strawberry milkshake. Let me reprise it here for you:

Amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amyl ketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphenyl-2-butanone (10 percent solution in alcohol), a-ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, g-undecalactone, vanillin, and solvent.


Why oh why do companies think they can improve on nature by substituting natural foods for a  compound of more than 50 chemicals and derivatives? You’d think it would be a lot more work to develop this mixture than it would be just to do something really radical, like blend up some strawberries?

But even more horrifying to me is the utter lack of regard for the consumer of these chemical mixes. These ingredients include petroleum byproducts commonly used in products like nailpolish, tanning oils, perfumes, etc… Some of these ingredients, like butyric acid, are known to be cancer-causing, yet they are still included in this “natural” strawberry flavoring.

Even vanillin is synthesized in a petrochemical plant in China or Louisiana to mimic the flavor of real vanilla. Without the real vanilla, of course.

You can argue that you might receive a really small amount of these substances in a single strawberry milkshake. Maybe. But add up all the things you might be eating every day that contain artificial or “natural” flavors and colors, and that’s a lot of toxins to accumulate in your body. Soda pop, snack cakes, cheese-flavored crackers, maple-flavored syrups, mainstream ice creams, cereals, juices… need I go on?

My goal is always to stick to whole foods as much as possible to avoid these hidden killers, but when I do purchase prepared foods I look for labels that list fewer ingredients where all of them are easily identifiable. Unfortunately, the FDA allows companies to hide that ugly list above under the catch-all ingredient of “natural flavors.”

Now you know, though, and you won’t be fooled so easily.

24 Comments on “How natural are “natural flavors”?

  1. Do you know that naturally brewed coffee contains over 700 chemicals, banana over 300 chemicals. All foods contain chemicals that provide flavor. When you grill or fry meat you develop some unhealthy chemicals, but since they are natural, there is no concern. These naturally occurring chemicals provide the volatile flavor in these products. The chemicals found in industry flavors are all approved by the FDA, and are found in foods. We eat thousands of chemicals every day. The chemicals in industry flavors are self limited by the strength of the chemical, as they are in nature.

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  6. To be clear: This is a list of potential artificial flavors, not natural flavors.

    However, a list of “natural flavors” would be depressing as well.

  7. Lou – I don’t know much about those two sweeteners, but personally I avoid all artificial and synthetic sweeteners like the plague. I will look into those two for a future blog post.

  8. Good question. I’ll have to ask where she got the list.

    Great point about MSG sneaking into foods without appearing on the label! It’s appalling that this can happen, and that it’s legal, too! Sensitivities to food additives are incredibly common yet hard to pinpoint for reasons just like this one. Thanks for info!

  9. How did Nonna get a list of ‘natural flavors’?

    That is one of the hardest lists to pry out of the hands of a food producer. I know first hand.

    You may already know this but, food additives such as MSG can BY LAW be put into any ‘processed food’ by cutting that additive by 10% (maybe less) with anything ie. table salt or lab created chemical and, vola! It’s no longer MSG and it can safely hind under the misleading ‘natural’ flavoring labeling.

  10. Hi,

    What I am interested is these two Sugar Substitute products, “Swerve” and “Truvia”.
    Both these two Sugar Substitutes have listed in their ingredients “NATURAL FLAVORS” What does that mean? After Reading your article about “Natural Flavors” I am concerned about using these two products. They both claim to be healthy. “Swerve” is even created by a Doctor to help diabetics. How do I go about finding out what Natural Flavors means in these two products. I have written and e-mail to one of these companies, but have not received an answer yet. Anyway, Thank you for your posting. Maybe you could do some research into these two sugars. to give consumers a heads up.
    Thanks again for your website!

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