Does the term ‘natural flavors’ on an ingredient label give you peace or scare you to death? Before I knew what that term meant, I was always glad to see it on a label as opposed to the term ‘artificial flavors.’ Now, both terms strike fear into my heart as I have to gamble on what this term truly means.

Both natural and artificial flavors are added to foods or drinks to make it more appealing, make it taste better, and/or to add something that may have been lost through processing, storage, or pasteurizing. ‘Natural flavor(s)’ has a good ring to it. Anything with the term ‘natural’ always sounds better, right? Well, if you’ve been reading some of our other posts, you have been quick to learn that this term literally means nothing. If anything, it is more of a lure for buyers who think they are making healthier choices. In regards to ‘natural flavors,’ however, this term is actually regulated by the FDA. Here is their definition:

“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.”

In simple terms, natural flavors must be derived from plant or animal “material.” Remember a paragraph ago when I said that this was regulated? Well, what I didn’t tell you was that it was very loosely regulated. Plant or animal “material” can be anything from any plant or animal. Additionally, ‘natural flavors’ can be extracted from genetically modified organisms, because, well, they are technically still plants (sigh). ‘Natural flavor’ also gives you the impression that it is fairly simple—like maybe a mixture of some spices or juices. Truth is, natural flavors are concocted by a flavor specialist in a laboratory and can include hundreds of different combinations of random plant or animal “material”.

To make matters worse, the original extraction from the plant or animal material may have originated as ‘natural’ but there is no limitation on altering the material. In many cases, ‘natural flavors’ contain very little flavoring and are mostly (80-90%) solvents, emulsifiers, flavor modifiers, and preservatives that are used to alter the flavor to be exactly how the company wants it. Food manufacturers are permitted by the FDA to use these synthetic chemicals/solvents in ‘natural flavors’ and… they don’t even have to tell you! These synthetics can all be considered ‘incidental additives’ and, therefore, they are not required to be listed on the label.

So, in summary: natural flavors simply must start from plant or animal “material.” They can be from any component of the plant or animal, and those components can be altered with natural or synthetic solvents, emulsifiers, flavor modifiers, and/or preservatives. These components can then be added to hundreds of others to create the ideal ‘natural flavor’ or chemical cocktail. It is estimated that ‘natural flavors’ are 80-90% solvents, emulsifiers, flavor modifiers, and preservatives. Now that we understand the basics, let’s look at some plant or animal “materials” that can and are used under the umbrella term ‘natural flavors.’


What’s Hiding In Your ‘Natural Flavors?’

There are seriously some gross and disturbing things used to make ‘natural flavors.’ Craving some beaver anal gland secretions? How about some crushed beetles? Or come on, human hair? Yep, those are all true. Let’s look at this more!

Castoreum is emitted from the castor sacs from within a beaver’s anus. It is a slimy brown, yellow substance that is secreted by beavers in conjunction with urine to mark their territory. Because this substance is generally regarded as safe by the FDA, it has been used as a ‘natural flavor’ for many years. It has been around in the perfume industry for longer, used to create a variety of different fragrances. In the food industry, however, castoreum is mainly used as enhancers of vanilla, strawberry, and raspberry flavorings in products such as ice cream, gelatin, candy, chewing gum, fruit-flavored drinks, iced tea, alcoholic beverages, vanilla extract, and yogurt. YUCK.

Carmine is the fancy term for ground-up cochineal insects—essentially mashed red beetles. Carmine is also identified on food labels by the names: crimson lake, cochineal, Natural Red 2 or 4, CI 75470, or E120. Carmine is a part of many different flavorings (such as strawberry, pomegranate, and blueberry flavor) to give foods a vibrant red, pink, orange, and purple color. Carmine can be found in applesauce, baked goods, meats, spices, ice cream, yogurt, candy, juices, and so much more.

Here is a cute little FAQ from a Yoplait yogurt consumer:


Shellac is made from the sticky, resinous excretions of the Kerria lacca insect, most commonly found in the forests of Thailand. If you’ve eaten any shiny candies (jelly beans, Skittles, etc) or glazed donuts, you are probably eating these yummy secretions. Interestingly enough, shellac is often added to coffee beans to extend their shelf life and to conventional fruits to make them shiny and more appealing.

Lanolin, otherwise named “gum base,” is actually secretions from sheep sebaceous glands. Mainly found in gum, it gives gum its bouncy, chewy feeling.

L-cysteine is sourced mainly from human hair or duck feathers, and occasionally pig bristles. This is found in many baked goods as a flavor enhancer and dough conditioner. If you aren’t puking already, wait until you hear this! Most of the hair used to make L-cysteine gathered from the floors of barbershops and hair salons in China. The hair is dissolved in acid and the L-cysteine is isolated through a chemical process, and then shipped off to commercial bread producers.

Disturbed yet?

Think about it, anything that isn’t man made can be added in your food as a ‘natural flavor’ as long as it is generally regarded as safe (which is complete bogus anyway). But seriously, I want to know who the first person was to figure out that these items added flavor! Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients is the standard reference for flavor ingredients throughout the world. This reference can tell you all about the natural flavors used and can point out the hundreds of different chemicals/substances that can be used to approximate the taste of something (i.e. natural ‘apple’ flavor). More than anything, this makes me think: even if these things are ‘natural,’ did God truly intend for us to use them in our food?


Vegans and Vegetarians Beware!

As mentioned above, there may be beaver parts, beetles, sheep, bone, fish bladder, etc. all hiding as ‘natural flavors’ in your foods. One would assume that a raspberry flavored item would be ‘naturally flavored’ with raspberries, but in truth, it probably isn’t and it could actually be sourced from an animal. You may remember the uproar that occurred when it was revealed that Starbucks used crushed up beetles in their Strawberry Frappuccinos. This opened the eyes of many vegans and vegetarians to the scary sources behind many flavors. McDonald’s was also sued by vegetarians due to them using flavorings from animal sources in their French fries without notifying consumers. To vegetarians and everyone’s misfortune, these restaurants are not the only ones with things to hide. Beware of the ‘natural flavor’ label.


What About Organics?

Organic certified foods have a little stricter standards when it comes to ‘natural favors.’ The US Department of Agriculture allows the makers of certified organic foods and other products to use organic-compliant natural flavors when organic versions are not commercially available. The ‘natural flavors’ in organic foods must be produced without use of synthetic solvents, carriers, and artificial preservatives. If the food is not certified organic, and instead labeled as “made with organic ingredients,” food processors are able to use synthetic extractions and/or carrier solvents.


Natural Flavors and Allergens

Under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, the food label is required to state if the product contains one or more of the top eight major allergens, these include: milk, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. In most cases, you will see the allergen labeled at the end of the ingredient list as: contains: allergen (i.e. wheat). So, when you are scanning the label looking for an allergen, be sure if you see ‘natural flavors’ listed, look at the entire label and not just the ingredient list. And, unfortunately, since ‘natural flavor’ is an umbrella term, if you have a food allergy other than one of the ‘Top 8’, the label will not disclose what may be included. In other words, if you have a food allergy you should also be very wary of ‘natural flavor.’


An Eye-Opening Video

Want to see how corrupt this system truly is? I highly recommend you watch this video. Before I watched this video, I thought ‘natural flavors’ were mostly just gross and I was disappointed that they were filled with chemicals. It wasn’t until I watched this video, that it hit me how manipulating and cruel this industry is. You have to watch this!

60 Minutes: Tweaking Tastes and Creating Cravings

Biggest takeaway: Companies pay flavorists to make a non-lingering flavor, a flavor that begs you to eat or drink more. They WANT you to become addicted. They WANT to make money. They DON’T CARE about YOU or YOUR HEALTH. The food industry has become about flavor and pleasure instead of nutrients—the part of food that actually matters, the sole purpose of hunger.


The Bottom Line

‘Natural flavors’ are a very scary food additive. They can contain anything under the sun that isn’t man made. The premise of these flavors is to, basically, make you want more. They make the food taste ‘better’ so it is more addictive, all while keeping you unaware of the strange sources of the flavors. This industry is purposefully tampering with our food… with God’s creation! The only real way to get to the bottom of the ‘natural flavors’ in your food is to call the company directly and ask (but few will tell you, because they are not required to disclose the information!). But the best thing to do is to avoid them all together. Buy fresh, organic foods to get the REAL flavor. No beaver butts, no hair, no beetles. Don’t let the food industry trick you. Be informed. Be educated. Share your knowledge.

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