When we hear the term “natural flavors” we automatically think of healthy, natural food, but few people know what this term actually means. The truth is, natural and artificial flavors are actually extremely similar. They are both manipulated in a lab and injected directly into a food. The main difference is “natural flavors” come from plant or animal sources and “artificial flavors” mimic the same chemical structure but are created in a lab.
Natural flavors have specific characteristics. They are an additive to a product. The FDA has mandated a list of flavors you can pull these from which are “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.” These are pulled from a plant or animal source and are the manipulated in a lab and re-added to the food.
Artificial flavors are made in a lab but mimic the same chemical structure of those natural flavors. These flavors are extremely similar to those of natural flavors and are meant to taste the same as the chemicals you would otherwise extract naturally.
So, are natural flavors actually bad for you? The short answer is- not really. The truth is, foods with natural flavors added are typically higher in calories and sodium and taste better making them addictive and resulting in unhealthy cravings and diets. Scientists add these flavors for a variety of reasons including financial gain and product uniformity (all products tasting virtually the same). If you are looking for a grape flavor, it could contain actual grapes, flavors derived from a grape or flavors made in a lab to mimic the flavors of a grape and all could taste virtually the same.
Since natural flavorings are the fourth most common ingredient on product labels it is important to be aware of what this actually means. If you are looking for the most natural product, “whole foods” are your safest bet. None of these products were created in a lab and are at their most natural state. If you are looking for a flavored product, be mindful that your label will tell you if there is a flavoring added but it might not be as natural as you think.