Are “Natural Flavors” as Natural as You Think?

I have a story to share that has brought up an interesting heath topic that is so regularly confronted yet so commonly misunderstood that it begs to be discussed. What is the real meaning of the ingredient listing “natural flavoring?” These natural flavors…where do they come from? Are they healthy? Are they safe? I hope to answer these questions in this article.

Here is story that sparked this topic:  I was at a Shabbat dinner and I was thirsty…as a naturopathic doctor I am somewhat picky about what I choose to drink and put inside of my body. I find that when it comes to drinks on Shabbat, as a guest, it’s usually a choice between sodas, juices and if I am lucky a bottle of water. But at this particular table there was only two choices…Coke and a fruit flavored water. The flavored water was at the opposite end of the table so I asked the woman of the house to pass it over…but before I could take it from her she recoiled with the bottle turned it over to see the label and said, “Wait! Is this healthy? What’s in this…hmm…no added sugar…it has “natural flavors”…that means its healthy right Dr. Anders? Natural right?”

You should know this kind of health questioning happens to me at about every 2 out of 3 Shabbat meals…. some people sing for their supper—evidently I teach for mine…about natural health. But this time…I was intrigued…it was a good question. What does “natural flavor” mean? Does it mean the flavors come from fruit? Are they from other things in nature? Animal products?  Where exactly do these natural flavors come from? Good questions just begging to be answered.

Note: Since this blog is the Times of Israel, I have written my answers to focus on Israeli food standards only.

Here are some of the discoveries I made about the term natural flavors in Israel:

Natural flavor defined: In Israel, when a label says “natural flavor” it means its source is from a food.  This food could be from a cow, a dandelion or a strawberry…you will never know. What you can know is that it comes from something edible and it can’t be made in a lab out of chemicals. It can however be refined/processed in a lab out of food. In Israel, the labeling law goes according to Israeli Standard SI 1145 where there is a list of 33 processes that one can apply to a food to extract the flavor and call it “natural.” The main point is that the process cannot change the flavors chemical structure and it has to originate from a food.

Natural = Nutritional (Not a chance):  The first mistaken thought you might have about the term “natural flavors” is that it has some nutritional virtues. This is most definitely not the case. No special virtues can be attributed to the flavoring. Why? Because good things and bad things both come from nature—just because it comes from nature does not mean it is healthy.

Are natural flavors fundamentally different artificial flavors (Not really): What does it mean by natural and how is it not artificial? Everything is a chemical when you break it down. For instance sugar is a chemical, it has a specific molecular structure that helps us identify it as sugar. It can be isolated from sugar cane, through refining, but that exact chemical structure might also be able to be made in a lab from other chemicals. This is the same with flavorings – they are chemicals with specific chemical structures. Natural strawberry flavor could be chemically identical to artificial strawberry flavor, the only difference is that the natural strawberry flavor came from something edible found in nature (not necessarily a strawberry) and artificial flavor came from something built synthetically in a lab from a petroleum byproduct. (or some other chemical) Note: Sometimes artificial flavoring like strawberry flavor is not an exact chemical equivalent to the strawberry flavor found in a food – they are different chemicals. In Israel, if the artificial flavor is identical chemically it can be labeled as Natural-like-flavor! Deceptive!

Natural flavors are better for you than artificial flavors (No!): You might wonder…are natural flavors  better/safer/more healthy than artificial ones? You might assume that artificial flavor is bad because it originates from non-food lab chemicals. Interestingly there is an argument out there that natural flavors are less safe and are a worse choice because 1) the natural flavor may have a source in something that is endangered (an animal or rare food). 2) It may take more energy to get it out of the food than to mix chemicals in a lab — so less sustainable 3) In the USA the artificial flavors require safely testing but natural flavors do not! I was not able to find out if Israel has the same insane food safety policies as the USA, but for those living in the US this should definitely warrant some concern for your health. Baring that the chemical structure of both the natural flavor and the artificial flavor are identical, from the perspective of sustainability and conservation of wildlife, it could be argued that artificial flavors are a better choice.

It is amazing to think about how deceptive the title “natural flavor” is— so many people mistakenly believe these “natural favors” make their food a healthier choice, when in fact it may be just as unhealthy as artificial flavors and even worse for our environment! How many of us have been duped by these words? Next time you go for that flavored water don’t be fooled! Definitely some food for thought!

Dr. Anders Nerman, N.D.

About the Author
Dr. Anders Nerman, N.D. is a Naturopathic Doctor with an Integrative Family Medical practice in Wolfson Medical Center in Jerusalem, Israel. Dr. Nerman graduated in 2012 from the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine, one of six accredited naturopathic colleges in North America. Dr. Nerman is currently a part-time Medical Resident at the Center for Integrative Complementary Medicine (CICM) at Sharei Tzedek Hospital. His focus is on treatment of Digestive Disorders, IBS, Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue.