With the prevalence of processed foods at an all-time high, natural flavors have become one of the most common ingredients in our diet. Are they inherently bad? Should you avoid them? It’s time to take a look!
What Are Natural Flavors?
Natural flavors are chemicals extracted from plant or animal sources, and must come from a living organism. Artificial flavors, on the other hand, are synthesized from start to finish by chemists in a lab. You can read the Federal Drug Administration’s full definition of both, if interested.
Natural flavors are right behind ingredients like water, salt, and wheat in rankings of the most used ingredients in American foods—though their use is not limited to prepackaged or fast foods. Natural flavors also appear in what most consider healthy options like almond milk, yogurt, coffee, and nutritional supplements.
In their simplest forms, both natural and artificial flavors are chemicals combined to cause favorable sensations in our brains. They’re both added to foods, but have different origins. Vanillin for example, is a compound used to flavor ice cream and other foods. It can be extracted naturally from the vanilla bean or even wood pulp in some cases. Chemists can also synthesize vanillin in a lab that is identical to the naturally extracted version at a fraction of the cost. Both are processed at one point or another, both have to pass safety guidelines, and both versions yield the same tasty flavor. Yet one is labeled natural to highlight its source (and admittedly peak the interest of consumers), while the other is labeled artificial, as it fully is.
Chemicals Can Be OK
Don’t be afraid of the word chemicals! Everything is made up of chemicals, and every chemical causes different sensations in the brain. Think about the smell of freshly brewed coffee. That smell is produced when heat is added to the chemicals in coffee beans. Chemicals are responsible for the taste, smell, and flavor of everything we eat or drink. AsapSCIENCE explains this well in a fun, instructional video.
Are Natural Flavors Harmful?
The short answer is no. Are foods containing natural flavors as optimal for health as foods like fresh fruits and vegetables? Definitely not, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the chemicals in natural flavors themselves. The bigger factor is that foods containing natural flavors typically contain more calories, have higher sodium, and taste better, causing you to crave them more often. That’s a problem—when the ability to moderate quantity is diminished. All of these factors connected to natural flavors may lead to weight gain, increased blood pressure, and an increased risk of health complications.
It must be said that the long-term research on natural and artificial flavors is lacking, but to date it appears there is no need to completely cut out natural flavors or other chemicals like artificial sweeteners from your diet. Still, there is nothing wrong with being mindful of the non-food ingredients you’re ingesting. Like anything else, too much of one thing can be a bad thing.
At the end of the day, avoiding natural flavors entirely is a bit unrealistic. Shift your focus like usual to making better food choices (more whole foods!), maintaining a healthy weight, and exercising regularly. Sedentary lifestyles and obesity are a lot more likely to cause health complications than natural flavors.