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What the Heck Is a ‘Natural Flavor,’ Anyway?

This bish better be AU NATUREL

Pop-Tarts, Bagel Bites, CLIF Bars — they all have a dash of “natural flavor.” But what in the actual fuck is a natural flavor, anyway? And how natural are we talking here? Grab your favorite naturally-flavored snack, and join me on this extremely important hunt for answers.

What Does ‘Natural Flavor’ Mean?

A good place to start is with the FDA definition for flavorings: “The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means 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. Natural flavors include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants.”

Well, that was complicated. In simpler terms, physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan says, “Natural flavors have to be extracted from some kind of food or plant.” Similar to artificial flavors, natural flavors can still be tweaked and fiddled with in labs, but they must begin as an actual, edible food source, whereas artificial flavors can come from petroleum and other inedible substances.

This could mean that your natural pineapple flavor comes from something other than pineapple, like a combination of plants or fruits that flavorists combined to taste like pineapple. But the FDA allows companies to be vague about how they create their natural flavors, unless they contain a common allergen. “Natural flavors can be listed on an ingredient statement as ‘natural flavor’ or ‘natural flavoring’ without explaining how they were specifically derived,” says Nathan Arnold of the FDA. “The main exception is if they contain a major allergen. If a natural flavor contains protein from one of the eight major allergens, the allergen must be declared on the label in accordance with the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). For example, if a natural flavor contains egg protein, egg must be declared either in the ingredient list or in the ‘contains’ statement.”

I should also note that our definition of natural in America is different from elsewhere in the world. “The FDA defines a natural flavor as a substance extracted, distilled or similarly derived from plant or animal matter, either as is or after it has been roasted, heated or fermented, and whose function is for flavor, not nutrition,” says John Ruff,  chief science and technology officer for the Institute of Food Technologists. “This sounds straightforward, but it’s more complex than it seems. For example, the EU definition of natural flavors is stricter than that in the U.S. As a result, EU natural flavors meet the U.S. requirement, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true. EU natural flavors have requirements on the manufacturing method as well as the raw material origin. Different global entities may have their own definitions of natural flavors: India, for example, defines a natural flavor as flavors derived exclusively by physical processes from vegetables. Unlike U.S. or EU requirements, microbiological processes aren’t allowed. Japan, like the U.S., does restrict the manufacturing method. However, they have a limited list of plants and animals that are allowed sources for natural flavors.”

All of this is to say, in a world that continues to plunge more toward the artificial, what we consider to be natural is in the eye of the beholder. Here in America, the only real qualification for a natural flavor is that it was, at one point, something edible.