What Are Natural Flavors?

Cardiovascular (CV) nurses who counsel patients to improve diet quality may be confronted with questions regarding what “natural flavors” really are and why there are in so many foods? This and many other questions like, “what is the difference between natural flavors and artificial flavors?” are commonly asked as people try to sort out food that are healthy, organic, or meet criteria for vegetarian or vegan.

Part of the issue is the word “natural.” The FDA does not define “natural” food, but it does define “natural flavors:”

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.1

To most, “natural flavors” may still seem like a general term. Natural flavors come from natural sources. For example, “natural lemon flavor” does not have to come from a lemon but from a source which yields a substance with the same chemical structure as a lemon. “Natural lemon flavor” can actually be obtained from a lemon myrtle, a plant that does not produce lemons. Natural flavors that sound like they have plant origins might actually be obtained from natural animal sources as the definition of natural flavors suggests. The goal of flavorists is to find the identical chemical structure in nature, wherever it is. Flavorists are from a branch of chemistry that specializes in natural flavors, so the food industry can enhance the taste of food. Knowing the source of the flavor may be important to someone trying to avoid certain chemicals due to allergies or preferences for a non-animal-based diet.

 “Artificial flavors” are flavors that are not defined as “natural flavors”. The FDA definition is:

The term artificial flavor or artificial flavoring means any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof.1

The FDA provides lists of “artificial flavors,” which are made chemically. It is clear to see that “artificial flavors” may have less marketing appeal than “natural flavors”, but artificial flavors may still need to be used sometimes because finding a natural alternative, naturally occurring somewhere in the world, can be very expensive.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, understanding food marketing terms is important.2 The FDA regulates the language on the food label for both natural and artificial flavors.In cases where the flavor contains both a natural flavor and an artificial flavor, the flavor shall be labeled: "natural and artificial flavor." The term “natural” in natural flavors should not be mixed up with the amount of processing that has occurred (like minimally processed) or confused with the idea of organic status.2 The food marketing term “ natural flavors” has its own specific definition,1 and being knowledgeable about these terms should help CV nurses be a resource to our CV patients as as they make dietary changes and decisions.
  1. CFR- Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 (Part 101, Subpart B- Food Labeling Requirements, Federal Drug Administration) (April 2017) CFRSearch.cfm?fr=101.22
  2. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website, Understanding Food Marketing Terms (June 2017)