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Finding the natural in natural flavors

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Unless you grow or hunt all your own food, chances are you’ve encountered natural flavors in things you eat. According to a study by the Environmental Working Group, “natural flavor” is now the fourth most common ingredient in food after salt, water, and sugar.

So, what are natural flavors? Why are they seemingly in everything? And if they are so natural, why don’t ingredient labels list what they are? These questions come from Marketplace listener Jean Beach.

Since being diagnosed with Celiac Disease, Beach has been diligently checking ingredient labels. She sees natural flavors everywhere. On the iced tea she drinks, the ingredient list reads water, natural flavors, and then tea, which means there’s more natural flavoring in Beach’s tea than actual tea.

When it comes to flavors, Lisa Lefferts with the Center for Science in the Public Interest says there are a lot of mysteries, and calls the flavor industry a “big black box.” Lefferts says a flavor ingredient can be some combination of about 2,300 possible substances. 

By reading the ingredient label, customers can tell if the flavor is artificial or natural. Artificial flavors are entirely man-made — chemicals synthesized to deliver a particular taste. Natural flavors are processed from a substance initially found in nature, but those substances can vary widely.

Take castoreum, for instance. “Castoreum is a natural flavor extracted from the anal castor sacs of beavers,” Lefferts says, “and it’s used to help create a vanilla or occasionally a fruity taste. So, in other words, vanilla flavor doesn’t necessarily come from the vanilla bean.”

Okay, you are probably not eating castoreum, it’s expensive and primarily used in fragrances. Most natural flavors come from more obvious sources like herbs and fruit.

The problem Lefferts says, is that flavors are not real food. “The main reason to be concerned about flavors, whether they are natural or artificial, is that when they are in there, you can be pretty sure that something real and nutritious has been left out,” she says.

But raw ingredients can be tricky. They may be expensive, or spoil. In packaged food, they may not even taste right, says John Hallagan. He’ s with the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association. Hallagan says “You can’t achieve the same flavor sensation from just putting strawberries in a bottle and mixing water in. It’s not going to taste like strawberry to you.”

So, companies craft their own strawberry flavors — maybe they mix in a little fruit extract with some compounds processed from other plants, even trees. 

Sue Ebeler, a food scientist and professor at the University of California Davis, says a few drops of the right ingredients can make a big impact on flavor. We’re talking about parts per trillion, she says, just a few molecules in an entire swimming pool.

Ebeler says advances in science have helped companies understand which molecules influence taste. A gas chromatograph could break down the flavor components of a substance to help replicate it.

So, why not explain what natural flavors are on ingredient labels? For one thing, Well, companies want to keep their special formulas secret — plus what sounds more appetizing: Things like beaver castor sacs and a long list of chemicals, or natural flavor?

“Putting the word natural anywhere there gives you an aura,” Marsha Cohen says. Cohen is a professor at the UC Hastings College of Law, and says when it comes to selling food, she says, it’s all about the aura.

I call Jean Beach back to tell her what I’ve found out. She’s not impressed by the “natural aura.”

Beach says she feels less comfortable about natural flavors, and would like to avoid them altogether. Problem is, they’re in so many things.

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