It's the 4th Most Common Food Ingredient in America. And Nobody Knows What It's Made From.
See if you can you solve this riddle:
- I'm written on wrappers, boxes, and packages in every grocery store in America.
- I'm the fourth most common food ingredient on labels—behind only salt, water, and sugar— according to The Environmental Working Group's Food Scores database of over 80,000 foods.
- I'm especially prevalent in nutrition and protein bars.
What am I?
Answer: "natural flavors."
They sound harmless enough. Almost even pleasant. After all, they’re called NATURAL flavors.
But have you ever stopped and questioned what “natural banana flavor” means or how that “natural smoke flavor” was created?
Call us naïve, but doesn’t natural banana flavor come from…bananas? Surely Big Food wouldn’t be trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes…
If we did business like most nutrition bar companies, here’s the general blueprint we’d follow:
· Pump our product full of questionable protein sources.
· Use higher quality protein sources like nuts and seeds sparingly.
· Inject a few different natural flavors to create our flavor offerings.
· Shove them in a wrapper and sell for $3 each.
And there are four reasons why this model using natural flavors is so popular.
From a purely financial standpoint, this model makes perfect sense: why use real vanilla or real blueberries—which can both be expensive—when you can simply inject “natural flavors” for a fraction of the cost?
2. Flavor Manipulation
We get it. As a manufacturer of food, the thought of having a magic potion to instantly make our product taste like anything we want is pretty tantalizing. Our Cookie Dough flavor took months to nail down and there were times when we wished we could just snap our fingers for a solution. A few drops of natural flavors is all we would’ve needed.
3. Flavor Consistency
Unlike real foods, which can vary depending on growing seasons/conditions/etc, natural flavors yield the same taste every time.
4. Shelf Life
The problem with using real ingredients—say actual blueberries in a blueberry flavor—is that shelf life takes a dive. Using natural flavors instead allows your product to live on a grocery store shelf for months on end without a change in taste. Problem solved.
Why Natural Flavors Are Banned at Unwrapp'd
So, given the four compelling reasons above, why do we refuse to use natural flavors in our nutrition bar dough?
First, we want to give our consumers the best product, one made from whole foods and free of refined sugars, toxic fats, soy, dairy and chemical additives. That last one – chemical additives – is what natural flavors are: chemicals that are made and added to food. As in they aren’t grown or harvested.
Take this example. Below is a screenshot of what we found when we went shopping online for natural flavors.
We have so many questions. Where the heck is the banana? Propylene Glycol? And how can Natural Flavors include Natural Flavors in the ingredient list?
Here's the craziest thing. If we were to substitute this banana natural flavor for the real bananas we use in our Banana Nut Muffin flavor, we wouldn't have to include ethyl alcohol or propylene glycol on our ingredient list. We could simply list "natural flavors" and call it a day.
And here's why this nondisclosure is so frightening. Checkout what a Google search for propylene glycol reveals.
Ok, Google, that's messed up. When your ingredients are shipping overnight from ChemWorld.com you should probably think twice about putting them in food. Nevermind the fact that they arrive in drums that look like they're straight out of the set from Breaking Bad.
But what is propylene glycol actually? Is it such a big deal that it wouldn't have to be disclosed on a food label?
According to nutritionist and author of The Pantry Principle, Mira Dessy, propylene glycol has "an alternative use in antifreeze, and animal studies going back decades have shown that it can bring about depression of the central nervous system. It also can be a cause of allergies and asthma in children or cause other skin problems."
So why doesn't it have to be disclosed?
According to Dessy, apparently it's covered under an FDA regulation covering "incidental food additive labeling" which allows food manufacturers to skip ANY mention of it on the label.
Now that's bananas.
Meet The Flavorists
Natural flavors don't seem so natural anymore, huh? Everyone knows we're supposed to avoid artificial flavors, but why are natural flavors escaping the same scrutiny?
It's all in the name. Seeing "natural" on an ingredient list vs "artificial" makes you think one is good and the other bad. But there really isn't much difference between the two flavorings.
The largest difference is that natural flavors are coming from natural sources and artificial ones are usually entirely human made. In other words, natural flavors are are manipulated from an ingredient found in nature and then purified and extracted and added back into the food.
As CNN reports, the "natural flavors" in your blueberry bar aren't simply crushed-up blueberries. "Rather, they probably consist of a chemical originally found in blueberries, enhanced and added into your food in a lab."
Worse still, the "natural" origins can be much more sinister. In the blueberry example above, the flavor is derived from the source ingredient--blueberries. But the flavors can come from anything "found in nature," meaning yeast, another plant, and even an animal, as detailed in the Code of Federal Regulations.
Perhaps the grossest example of animal-derived natural flavors is castoreum, derived from beaver's castor sac and anal gland secretions. This, disgustingly enough, has been used to make vanilla, raspberry and strawberry flavors for years.
"Natural" takes on a whole new meaning in this light.
If this wasn't bad enough, here's where it gets even cloudier. Added flavorings, both natural and artificial, could contain anywhere from 50 to 100 ingredients. That's because in addition to the chemicals that create the aroma in the substance, artificial and natural flavor agents also include solvents and preservatives.
So every time you see a flavor component on a label – even a “natural” one – the product could contain up to 100 different chemicals. 100 chemicals that don't have to get included on the label!
If you're still confused about the differences between natural and artificial flavors after reading this post, here's the shortest summary we found.
According to Gary Reineccius, a professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota, in an article from Scientific American:
"There is little substantive difference in the chemical compositions of natural and artificial flavorings. They are both made in a laboratory by a trained professional, a "flavorist," who blends appropriate chemicals together in the right proportions."
We hope this post makes you check your labels for natural flavors. We'd never call out specific bars for using natural flavors but here's a list of websites worth checking...hypothetically of course...
CBS News. “Tweaking Tastes and Creating Cravings” (2011) on YouTube
CNN: "What are natural flavors, really?" (2015)
Organics.org: Natural vs Artificial Flavors
Dessy, M. The Pantry Principle (2013)
Ettlinger, S. Twinkie, Deconstructed (2007)