What are Natural Flavors?
Natural flavors are food additives derived from a natural source, such as a spice, fruit, vegetable, plant or animal, but may still undergo processing with chemicals.1 They are used to enhance the taste of food and maintain the flavor over extended shelf life.
Flavor additives play an important role in the food industry, giving products recognizable tastes and added flavor. Natural flavors make up over half of all flavoring additives used in foods today.2
Natural flavors may be used in the following baked goods:
- Cake Mixes
- Pudding and pie fillings
- Sweetbreads such as gingerbread
- Whole grain recipes
The FDA defines natural flavors or flavorings as “the natural essence or extractives derived from a spice, fruit, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products.”4
From the earliest recipes, foods have been flavored with spices, plants, and animals. Processed flavor additives came along as the Industrial Revolution swept the world during the 18th century. As mass production and shipping became standard practice, preserved and processed food took on a different taste than consumers were used to. Added flavors were introduced to give a familiar taste, mostly in baked goods, candies, sodas and processed foods when they skyrocketed during the 1950s.
Today most all packaged goods have added flavor – synthetic or natural. However, natural flavors are used just as often as artificial ones, if not more so. A push for healthier products has increased demand for natural flavor additives.
Although they are not from a synthetic source like artificial flavors, they still undergo considerable processing and can contain anywhere from 50 to 100 ingredients and chemicals.1
Natural flavors are manufactured from a variety of plants, roots, minerals, or animals. They are then enhanced with solvents and preservatives to ensure shelf life and conformity across products. Often, natural flavors will contain many of the same chemicals as artificial ones.2
Flavors are produced by either physically extracting the flavor or with a microbiological and enzymatic processes. This method produces flavors by replacing portions of sugar and salt used in products. It uses bacteria, fungi, and yeast to produce an enzymatic process. Natural cheese flavors are an example of this method.3
Each natural flavor is produced differently, depending on the original source of the flavor. However, it can not include any artificial flavoring or nature-identical additives.
Flavoring additives fall into two main categories, based on how they affect products:
- Flavoring smell, to give products aroma. Natural ones are usually extracted or distilled from original sources, then purified.
- Flavoring tastes are grouped into sweet, sour, salty or bitter additives. There are also flavors that add umami, or the savory flavor associated with meats and high-protein foods.
Flavoring tastes can enhance flavors already present or add additional flavors. Natural flavors must be labeled “artificial” in products if there is a flavor not present in the actual product.
As long as all the chemicals used in natural flavors are GRAS under the FDA, companies are not required to list the ingredients of the flavor additive.
Natural flavors on food labeling should be listed as follows:
“In cases where the flavor contains a solely natural flavor(s), the flavor shall be so labeled, e.g., strawberry flavor, banana flavor, or natural strawberry flavor,” under FDA CFR Title 21.4
- Hui, Y. H. Handbook of Food Science, Technology, and Engineering. Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis, 2006.
- Branen, Alfred Larry, P. Michael Davidson, and Seppo Salminen. Food Additives. New York: M. Dekker, 1990.
- Carroll, Austin L., Shuchi H. Desai, and Shota Atsumi. “Microbial Production of Scent and Flavor Compounds.” Current Opinion in Biotechnology 37 (2016): 8-15.
- “CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21.” Accessdata.fda.gov, 1 Apr. 2017, www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=501.22.