They are all considered “natural flavors”.
You might think that by avoiding products that contain “artificial flavors,” you are free from consuming anything you don’t recognize. Natural flavors, after all, sound pretty natural. Unfortunately, the FDA’s definition of a natural flavor is so broad that it allows companies to sneak in all sorts of ingredients they’d rather not disclose, but instead, hide under the guise of a natural flavor.
The FDA definition of a natural flavor is as follows:
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 any other edible portions of a plant, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose primary function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional”.
The major difference between natural flavors and artificial flavors is that natural flavors are derived from anything that is technically edible, whereas artificial flavors can be derived from inedible chemicals such as petroleum. The question to ask ourselves is, just because something is technically edible and/or supposedly harmless, would we willingly consume these “natural flavors” if we actually knew where they came from? Should we trust food manufacturers and the products they produce if they opt to list “natural flavors” in the nutritional panel as opposed to disclosing the actual ingredients?
Natural flavors are questionable not because they necessarily contain compounds that are inherently dangerous for human consumption (although sometimes they may be) but because they are undisclosed, misunderstood and ironically, unnatural. Countless products are full of natural flavors to help make these foods more addictive to the consumer and often contain chemicals called excitotoxins. Excitotoxins actually stimulate our nerve cells through neurotransmitters until they are damaged or die. Excitotoxins are what give so many common snack foods that irresistible element – making it impossible to eat only one chip, one cookie, or have just one scoop of ice cream. Overtime, the consumption of excitotoxins can lead to excitotoxicity, which has been shown to lead to wide range of disorders and diseases as well as side effects including obesity, migraines, depression and fatigue. Not all products that contain natural flavors contain excitotoxins but the truth is that we can’t know for sure when all we see on a nutritional label is “natural flavors”.
Natural flavors are especially dangerous for those with food allergies as trace amounts of gluten, dairy, egg and other common allergens can often be lurking within natural flavors.
Again, not all “natural flavors” are inherently dangerous for human consumption but when food manufacturers use broad terminology to camouflage potentially dangerous ingredients, all of us are at risk. We all have choices when it comes to the foods we buy and can make a huge difference overall if we choose to support companies and products that contain fewer ingredients, ingredients we can pronounce and ingredients we recognize as real, nutrient-dense food.