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What Are Natural Flavors? And How ‘Natural’ Are They?


What are natural flavors? - Dr. Axe

You may not realize it, but chances are if you consume foods, drinks or supplements that have a pleasant taste and smell, you’re consuming natural flavors. What exactly is natural flavoring in food? And are natural flavors bad in terms of their health effects?

Most often, when foods contain “natural flavors,” they are actually made with a combination of dozens of naturally occurring compounds that together make your tastebuds experience a familiar taste.

For instance, some are used to mimic flavors of citrus fruits, while others mimic the taste of mushrooms, cheese, chocolate, honey, vanilla, peanut butter, coconut or almonds.

These constituents are extracted and added to foods to improve the flavor, but they don’t necessarily add any nutritional value. They may be used to make foods taste richer, more intense, or more like certain appealing foods such as nuts or meat.

What Are Natural Flavors?

What is a “natural flavor” according to the FDA?

In the U.S, the Food and Drug Administration considers the term natural flavor or natural flavoring to mean “constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or other plant materials.” Some flavors also come from animal-derived foods like meat and eggs, or fermented foods.

What is really in natural flavors? There are many different types of flavoring agents, ranging from essential oils to types of proteins that have been processed. What these various compounds have in common is that they serve as “flavor molecules,” since something about their taste appeals to the majority of people.

Natural Flavors vs. Artificial Flavors

When we read food labels and come across various chemicals that sound unfamiliar, we might assume that those considered to be “natural” are better than those considered to be “artificial.” But is this necessarily true?

In reality, natural and artificial flavoring agents aren’t really that different. Both natural and artificial flavors are “flavor molecules” that are created in laboratories. Even if a flavor is “natural,” this doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been processed. Many natural flavors are extracted from plants, diluted with water, then combined with glycerin or ethanol before undergoing even more processing.

The primary difference is that artificial flavors come from petroleum and other inedible substances.

On the other hand, natural flavors come from plants or animal-derived foods that theoretically could actually be eaten before they are processed in a lab (although some are not foods you’d normally indulge in, such as flowers and bark).

Artificial flavors are usually more cost-effective to use in processed foods and are created in order to mimic a desirable food’s molecular fingerprint. In other words, they are produced to mimic natural flavors.

Four common examples of artificial flavors found in foods include: methyl cyclopentenolone, diacetyl, methyl methoxy pyrazine and benzaldehyde.

Common Natural Flavors

What are natural flavors that you’d find in common food items such as drinks, yogurts and protein powders?

Below are some of the most common natural flavors used in foods and supplements:

  • Amyl acetate
  • Citral
  • Vanillin
  • Benzaldehyde
  • Castoreum
  • Linden ether
  • Massoia lactone
  • Acetoin

How Responsible Companies Use Natural Flavors

Overall, foods, drinks and supplements that contain very small amounts of natural flavoring are not thought to pose health concerns, according to experts. They are not typically used in high concentrations — often added only in trace amounts — and have been approved for consumption by the FDA due to their demonstrated safety.

For example, certain natural flavors are added to mimic the flavors and smell you’re familiar with. One example is natural vanilla flavoring, which boosts the taste and smell of vanilla without needing to add extra sugar or artificial ingredients.

Meanwhile, ideally, no artificial flavors that have been synthesized from chemicals are used to add taste and aroma to the products. You want to make sure that the natural flavors used in the products are extracted from real foods, including plants and spices.

The reason that food and supplement manufacturers don’t normally list every single natural flavor on their ingredient list is because this essentially gives away the products “proprietary recipe.” However, you can ensure that all Ancient Nutrition products are made without GMO ingredients and artificial flavors, colors or sweeteners.


It can be hard to know exactly what type of natural flavors are used in foods because in the U.S, the FDA doesn’t require food labels to say what’s in their “natural flavors” unless the ingredients include a common allergen.

The FDA requires a warning on foods and supplements that contain the following common allergens: milk, eggs, dish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.

If you have any other allergies besides those listed above, be very careful about the types of packaged products you consume that contain natural flavors, since they may potentially include trace amounts of compounds that could trigger a reaction.

If you’re concerned about having a reaction and want to find out which specific natural flavors are in a food or product, your best option is contacting the manufacturer or looking on their website for more information.

Josh Axe

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