For years, health-conscious folk have debated the fors and againsts of artificial and natural flavors.

In most of these tête-à-têtes, “nourishing” natural flavors beat out “noxious” artificial ones.

Recently, however, natural flavors have copped flak from the same people who once championed them, primarily because many now believe natural flavors aren’t nearly natural enough.

Why have opinions changed?

What does “natural flavors” mean?

How “natural” are natural flavors?

And are natural flavors bad for you?

Get evidence-based answers to these questions and more in this article.

What Are “Natural Flavors?”

According to the FDA, “natural flavor” or “natural flavoring” means:

“ . . . the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which 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.”

In other words, a natural flavor is any food flavoring derived from a plant or animal.

Why, then, do so many health and diet “gurus” campaign against natural flavors, claiming they’re actually wholly unnatural and laced with “toxic chemicals?”

Mainly because they misunderstand food chemistry.

Allow me to explain . . .

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How Natural Are Natural Flavors?

For a flavor to qualify as natural, it must have come from a natural source. Still, it can be a source you wouldn’t expect, and it can be processed in an unnatural way (that includes the use of artificial chemicals).

Take vanilla, for example. You might assume a natural vanilla flavoring comes from vanilla seeds scraped from vanilla pods, but this would be far too expensive and unsustainable because of the labor involved. 

Scientists discovered some time ago, however, that the main flavor component of vanilla seeds (vanillin) can be obtained from other sources, including celery seeds, tobacco leaves, orange leaves, and lemon peels. Natural enough. 

But the vanillin extraction process? 

That usually involves synthetic chemicals like organic solvents and acids or special enzymes. According to the FDA, such substances are permissible in the creation of a “natural” flavor even when they’re present in the final product (albeit at insignificant levels).

Consequently, you can have FDA-sanctioned “natural” vanilla flavoring that didn’t come from a vanilla plant and that contains trace amounts of unnatural compounds.

When some people see how this sausage is made, they feel hoodwinked because they’d always assumed natural flavoring was “100% natural in every way.” Hence the outraged bloggers fuming over the “dangerous chemicals” lurking in purportedly wholesome supplements, foods, and beverages.

The problem with this line of condemnation, however, is it ignores the abundance of scientific evidence showing that natural (and artificial, for that matter) flavors aren’t harmful unless they’re eaten to extreme excess. 

In the case of vanillin, for instance, research shows the LD50 (the acute dose that causes 50% of test animals to die) in rats is 1,580-to-3,300 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. 

Translate that to a 155-pound human, and you get an LD50 dose of between 111 and 231 grams, and relate that to, say, a cake recipe that calls for a drop or two of vanilla extract (containing 0.5-to-1 gram of vanillin), and you reach the realization that you’d have to eat between 200 and 500 cakes in one sitting to ingest enough vanillin to have a 50/50 chance of dying.

A skeptic might acknowledge that it essentially requires suicide by flavoring to die from it but also point out that there are many unwelcome effects that could occur short of death, ranging from something mild like a stomach ache to something severe like a disease, and that much smaller amounts of flavoring, if eaten often enough, could produce such reactions.

They’re not entirely wrong—if you eat enough flavoring often enough, you’ll harm your health—but there’s no evidence to suggest you can practically come close to this upper limit, especially if you mostly eat relatively unprocessed and nutritious foods and consume small amounts of flavoring in supplements, treats, and beverages (as many fitness folk do). 

What’s more, some natural flavors are produced without chemical additives (including all organic flavors) and contain no synthetic substances whatsoever. (And in case you’re wondering, my sports nutrition company Legion uses these more “mildly” processed types of natural flavoring.)

+ Scientific References