What Are “Natural Flavors” and Are They Bad for You?

What Are “Natural Flavors” and Are They Bad for You?

When you’re trying to eat healthily and be conscious of what you’re putting into your body, it can be helpful to make a habit of reading the ingredients list on processed food and beverages. However, it isn’t always easy to understand what exactly those ingredients are.

For example, most of us have seen “natural flavors” listed on ingredients lists, typically at the very end. The term may seem straightforward at first, but do we know what “natural flavors” actually are?

What are natural flavors?

The FDA defines “natural flavors” as essential oils or extracts from a plant or animal source, including spices, herbs, fruit juice or vegetable juice.

“Essentially, natural flavors are a flavor enhancer that is derived from a natural product,” explains Melissa Maccoux, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Holland Hospital.

“Natural flavors” are similar to artificial flavors but differ because they are made by altering a product that was originally natural. But by the time it’s processed, the product may no longer be what most would consider natural.

“That's where it gets confusing for consumers,” says Maccoux. “We see ‘natural’ and think it's a good thing, but the ingredient may have been altered 100 times before ending up in a specific food.”

Are natural flavors bad for you?

If you're concerned about your health, should you avoid foods with ‘natural flavor’ listed on the label?

“It's important to understand that natural flavors don't add anything nutritionally, but they don’t necessarily take away anything nutritionally either,” says Maccoux. “They have no calories or nutrients – they are simply a flavor enhancer.”

While natural flavors are value-neutral in terms of calories or nutrients, they likely contain chemical mixtures that are not at all “natural”. Although manufacturers are required to list “natural flavors” on ingredients lists, they are not required to list the various chemicals that were used to alter the original food source.

For those who want to avoid foods with natural flavors, Maccoux suggests choosing unflavored foods, like plain yogurt or carbonated water, and flavoring them yourself with fruit. 

While “natural flavors” are not necessarily health-harming, the healthiest food options will always be fresh or frozen whole foods – a truly natural option that is nutritious and delicious without needing any flavor enhancers.

Where can I learn more?

Ready to improve your nutrition or fitness level and reach your personal health goals? Holland Hospital’s registered dietitian nutritionists and exercise specialists are here for you, offering personalized programs, one-on-one coaching and group classes. To learn more, call Holland Hospital Healthy Life Programs at (616) 394-3344, or schedule an appointment with a registered dietitian through Holland Hospital Nutrition Services at (616) 394-3148.