The internet is full of accusations about natural flavors. Supposedly, they contain all kinds of nasty chemicals including MSG, hidden allergens and animal waste products. Recently, I was moved to join the debate on a popular food blog that was dispensing some very sensational albeit incorrect and highly exaggerated information about natural flavors. I was surprised to find myself accused of being a public relations expert working undercover for some unknown company I was supposedly protecting!

As an herbal beverage designer for over 30 years, I’ve worked with many “flavor houses” as they are known in the industry and used natural flavors in numerous products including over 80 teas and Teeccino. I’ve had the privilege of working with some very talented “flavorists” to get just the combination of flavors I desire.

what's really in natural flavors

So what are natural flavors made from? If you believe the hype on the internet, they are secret depositories of all kinds of chemicals that companies want to hide from consumers. This is untrue and simply isn’t the purpose of natural flavors. A product designer like myself uses natural flavors to enhance the flavor profile of a product by using concentrated flavor compounds that are naturally extracted from foods, herbs, fruits, vegetables and spices. The reality is that many foods and beverages would taste rather bland if a natural flavor wasn’t picking up the flavor notes in the food itself and accenting them with highlights of concentrated flavors made from fruity, spicy or herbal extracts.

Natural flavors are comprised of essential oils, herbal extracts, fruit essences and vegetable extracts that are isolated and concentrated using steam or alcohol distillation from their natural source. If you are consuming a savory product like a soup or meat product that uses natural flavors, then the flavors are often extracted from animal protein sources or edible yeasts to enhance the savory flavor notes.

Let me give you an example. In a tea that contains orange peel, you can taste some light orange notes if you have sensitive taste buds. But if I add a natural orange flavor made from the essential oil distilled from orange peel, now you can really taste that orange flavor and its enhancement is delicious!

Natural Versus Nature-Identical Flavors

Natural flavors in the USA can’t be what the industry terms “nature-identical” which European regulations allow to be used in place of natural flavors. “Nature-Identical” flavors are considered “artificial flavors” in the US because they are made from chemicals in a laboratory to match the natural flavor compounds found in foods, herbs, fruits, etc.
I’m in full agreement with the FDA on this matter. I don’t want a European product labeled with “natural flavors” that are really made by a chemist using chemical compounds to mimic nature. A good example of this is “vanillin”, a compound that is found naturally in vanilla but which is synthesized into an “artificial flavor” here in the US but is termed a “nature-identical” ingredient in Europe.

Vanilla, a flavor derived from the bean of an orchid that grows in tropical forests, is one of the most complex flavors found in nature, which is why it is so beloved all over the world. Vanilla extract is made using alcohol to extract the flavor compounds in the whole vanilla bean.

When I first created Teeccino, I made my own vanilla extract from beans I brought back from Mexico where vanilla is indigenous (native to that origin). Yum! But “vanillin” is only one constituent of vanilla’s numerous flavor compounds. It doesn’t have nearly the beautiful complexity of the real thing and I stay away from any product that uses it. Watch for it in chocolate because it is a cheap way to reduce the ingredient cost!

Natural Extracts Versus WONF Natural Flavors

However, there are times when I want a flavor that is natural but that isn’t derived from an extract of the plant itself. In the case of Teeccino, this is very important when it comes to natural coffee flavor. If I were to use an extract of the coffee bean for my natural flavor, it would still have caffeine and other undesirable components of coffee in it and I couldn’t claim that Teeccino was coffee free. If you eat a coffee flavored ice cream or yogurt and get a caffeine rush, it is because it actually contains real coffee extract that has caffeine in it.

For Teeccino’s “regular” flavors like French Roast and Java, I use a natural coffee flavor called a WONF which stands for “with other natural flavors”. This is a composite flavor that the flavorist creates using flavor constituents from other food ingredients that share some of the same flavor compounds that coffee has. My example of this was when I discovered that garlic and coffee share a flavor compound naturally found in both of them. Who would have thought?

Flavors from roasted chicory is in my WONF natural coffee flavor because it too has flavorallerge compounds in common with coffee. Here I really rely on the expertise of a flavorist to create a flavor that mirrors the flavor of coffee without it being a coffee extract. All of the components are extracted from natural food ingredients and they are all caffeine free which allows me to offer coffee lovers a flavor of Teeccino that tastes very similar to coffee but has no coffee in it.

Allergens in Natural Flavors

As for the concern that allergens are hidden in natural flavors, it’s illegal plain and simple. The FDA regulations require revealing any allergens in a food or beverage whether they are an ingredient or part of a flavor. I’ve read about people worrying that soy lecithin is hidden in natural flavors. If it is used in the base of a natural flavor, the allergen statement must say “Contains Soy” even if none of the ingredients in the product are soy-based except for the flavor. Recalls have been required for companies that have overlooked allergen statements from flavors on their labels!

Animal Extracts in Natural Flavors

The latest internet rumor making the rounds of blogger’s posts is a claim that secretions from the glands of a beaver called “castoreum” are used in raspberry and strawberry flavors. Cute videos with beaver puppets are meant to scare people from consuming any natural flavors because they may have hidden “beaver butts” in them. Oh please!
First of all, castoreum has been an ingredient in the fragrance industry along with ambergris and civet, all musky animal-derived scents that you may have unwittingly been wearing in a perfume. However, in foods, these ingredients simply haven’t been used for ages.

I’ve consulted with a number of flavorists and they all laugh when I inquire if they are using these animal musks in food flavors. Why would they? These exotic animal-sourced ingredients are so expensive whereas naturally-derived plant ingredients taste much better and are readily available at a much lower cost. If a musky note is required in a food, there are plant ingredients that can be used to add them like labdanum, a shrub that grows in the Mediterranean which produces a resin in its leaves that yields a deep musky scent.

When a designer requests a flavor from a flavor house, he or she makes the request giving some specifications like “all natural”, “no animal or dairy”, “kosher parve”, “no propylene glycol” or “organic compliant”. Animal or dairy derived flavors can’t be used in food and beverages that are certified Kosher parve or sold as vegetarian or vegan. Additionally, if a dairy ingredient were used, there would need to be an allergen statement such as “Contains Butter” which is often used to create creamy flavors. You can get nice creamy notes from coconut too so if I want a creamy flavor that is vegan and Kosher parve, I ask for it to be dairy-free.

MSG – Is It Really Hidden In Natural Flavors?

Monosodium glutamate or MSG has been an approved food additive for decades, but since 1998, the FDA ruled that it has to be labeled in the ingredient declaration of a food product and can’t be hidden in words like “other spices and flavorings”.

Glutamate is considered the source of the fifth flavor, named “umami” by its Japanese discoverer who realized that there was another flavor beyond sweet, salty, sour and bitter that is detected and liked by our taste buds.

Glutamates are naturally found in many foods like mushrooms and tomatoes. In MSG, glutamates are highly concentrated and some people seem to be sensitive to them although studies haven’t been definitive. Some extracts used in savory foods and in savory flavors are high in glutamates such as hydrolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, yeast extracts, protein extracts and soy extracts. For instance, nutritional yeast, popular in natural foods for its nutty, parmesan-like flavor that comes from its glutamate content, is often part of natural foods recipes.

If you believe you are sensitive to glutamates, you should avoid any foods that list these ingredients or that list MSG in their ingredient declaration. MSG itself, however, is not allowed to be undeclared on food labels.

NOP Rules For Flavors In Organic Products

Fortunately, the rules set into place by the National Organic Program (NOP) has led to a set of standards that has benefited everyone involved in organic products. A base ingredient like propylene glycol, a food-grade ingredient derived from hydrocarbons in petroleum, is often used in liquid natural flavors but isn’t allowed in flavors used in organic products. Now here is something that bloggers should genuinely get riled up about! Who wants chemically processed hydrocarbons in their natural flavors?

I knew about the prevalence of this cheap carrier base when I first started Teeccino and I made sure none of my flavors contained propylene glycol. I purposefully declared on Teeccino’s labels “no propylene glycol” even though most of my consumers had no idea what it was.

It was tough finding flavors that didn’t use propylene glycol in their base at that time. However, since the NOP was put into place in 2000, ingredients that aren’t on the approved list for inclusion in organic products can’t be used in flavors in those products. Thus the term “organic compliant” came into use, meaning that any flavor used in an organic product must comply with all NOP regulations and can’t include any non-permitted ingredients.

There are certified organic flavors available but they are limited and very very expensive. A lot of the high price is due to the cost of the organic alcohol used to extract the flavors. Organic grains that are used to make organic alcohol are in strong demand and short supply due to demand from dairy and cattle farms that have to feed organic grain to animals producing organic dairy and meat products. To use them to create organic alcohol simply isn’t the best use they could be put to. Alcohol is a highly refined product. I don’t worry about pesticide residues in alcohol like I worry about it in milk or cheese!

For Teeccino, I buy organic-compliant flavors rather than certified organic flavors to keep the cost down to my customers. For products I develop for other companies, whether or not they are organic, I always specify organic-compliant flavors as it is a short cut to getting the cleanest flavors possible that won’t contain any constituents in its base that I wouldn’t want anyone to consume.

My Recommendation

Here’s where I agree with the anti-flavor bloggers though it doesn’t create as provocative a scenario to excite readers. “Natural flavors” can contain in their base FDA approved ingredients that those of us who are dedicated to optimal health don’t want to consume – like propylene glycol. There are no federal standards for the word “natural” like there is for labeling a product “organic”.

My recommendation: buy organic and you don’t have to worry about your natural flavors containing something you don’t consider natural! If it is important to you that no animal products are in a food, verify that a product is vegan and doesn’t contain any animal-derived ingredients through its vegan and/or Kosher parve certification.

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  2. I apologize for falling behind on responding to these excellent comments! Too much travel and work.... This morning, I read a very disturbing article on the front page of the NY Times regarding genetically modified yeast cells and how scientists are creating them to be able to replicate essential oils and flavors that are normally extracted from the natural ingredients themselves. Not only will this affect our health as consumers, but this has the potential to ruin agricultural income sources for smallholder farmers in developing countries. On top of that, there was the suggestion that these yeast grown oils and flavors could be called "natural"!
    Unless there is a law requiring labeling of GMO's, we won't know what we are getting in the near future. Please support Washington's initiative 522 that will be voted on next month. The fight is state by state to require genetic labeling so we consumers will have the choice to buy the kind of food we want.
    Lauri - regarding flavors being derived from corn, I think you are confusing the dry substrates which many flavors are put on. In many cases, these substrates can be either corn or soy derived. In Teeccino's case,we use liquid flavors that don't contain any corn or soy in any form. Also, for the teas I create, I use flavors that are applied to an orange peel fiber to avoid corn and soy. A natural flavor like a fruit, spice, or vanilla simply can't be derived from corn. Artificial flavors are produced by chemists and I'm sure they are created from all kinds of combinations of laboratory-created chemicals.
    Karen - no MSG would be used in Teeccino's flavors even if I would allow it because we don't use savory flavors. MSG simply isn't used to enhance fruit, nut, and creamy flavors. It would taste awful! I have checked again, and MSG can't be used in a flavor without labeling it. However, glutamates can be converted into MSG in your body, so if you're sensitive to MSG, avoid the ingredients I mention in my post!

  3. This is a great way to help people understand why it's so important to read the label AND to understand the source of what you are eating. I'm glad that you included information about MSG and some of the flavoring sources it hides under in the label. Many people do not realize that it is there as a flavor enhancer, nor are they aware of where it can come from.
    It's great that you share the distinction between natural and organic as well when it comes to flavorings. So many people think it's "close enough" and don't realize the lack of oversight for the "natural" label.

  4. Well, I don't know if I really believe that it is "not being used in food anymore". It sure seems to be with my research that I have done. Nevertheless, I will still keep buying Teeccino, becuase it has been able to get my husband off coffee!

  5. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollen discusses how many "natural flavors" used in foods in the United States are molecules derived from corn and reconfigured in a laboratory. To date, this is the extent of my education of the controversy surrounding the worthlessly vague term "natural flavors".
    From your description of "nature-identical" flavors, corn molecule derived flavors sounds like they would fall under that category. However, these are commonly used in the US, so I'm confused.
    When you said "A product designer like myself uses natural flavors... that are naturally extracted from foods, herbs, fruits, vegetables and spices." were you including recombined corn molecule flavors? Do you consider those healthful and "natural"?


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