A few weeks about, Starbucks came out with their new pumpkin spice-flavored VIA instant coffee. Intrigued, I asked one of their reps to let me know what was in it. Her response? “Cane sugar, instant and microground Arabica coffee, natural flavors.” Oh. Natural flavors. That really clears it up for me. Except it doesn’t–and it just made me all the more curious about what, exactly, “natural flavors” actually means.
Let’s start with what the government says. Per the FDA’s Code of Federal Regulations, an ingredient can be termed “natural flavors” or “natural flavoring” if:
…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.
So, basically, “natural flavors” is an umbrella term where food manufacturers can hide ingredients that may not sound super-appetizing to consumers. If it was recently some kind of organic matter, it might be a natural flavor. Fish, eggs, meat, plants, veggies, mold…any of that could, technically, be considered a natural flavor–even it if is distilled, fermented, roasted, and otherwise adulterated within an inch of its life.Egg shells? Natural! Fish bones? Natural! Castoreum, which is a sweet flavor made from–seriously–beaver anal glands? Natural. And in a lot of things.
There are some things that cannot be billed as natural flavors. Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, for example, has to be labeled separately. Though, of course, there are loopholes for that, too, because there is no actual definition for the word “natural.”
But for the most part, if it comes from a plant or animal, it could be a natural flavor. And it probably will be considered a natural flavor, unless it’s something the manufacturer really wants you to know about, like a flavor that hasn’t been chemically reduced to some kind of unrecognizable sludge. Also from the FDA:
…In cases where the flavor contains a solely natural flavor(s), the flavor shall be so labeled, e.g., “strawberry flavor”, “banana flavor”, or “natural strawberry flavor”. In cases where the flavor contains both a natural flavor and an artificial flavor, the flavor shall be so labeled, e.g., “natural and artificial strawberry flavor”. In cases where the flavor contains a solely artificial flavor(s), the flavor shall be so labeled, e.g., “artificial strawberry flavor”.
When you see “natural strawberry flavor,” you can assume it’s probably made with actual strawberries that have not been laced with additional ingredients.
Another interesting component of natural flavors, as defined by law–they are supposed to be added for flavor, not nutrition or stability or any other reason why you’d put a non-food thing (like shellac, which is made of bug shells) into food. There are a lot of gross ingredients–gelatin, for example–which are added to foods to help they look, feel, or hold up differently. But natural flavors don’t have any purpose other than pleasing consumer palates.
Which means any product that has “natural flavors” listed could, ostensibly, do without them. It might taste different, and maybe not as yummy/sweet/anal gland-y, but fundamentally, it wouldn’t be fundamentally altered in appearance, texture, or nutritional value.
Natural flavors, then, are basically unnecessary additives that are entirely the byproduct of large-scale manufacturing. And, if enough consumers were upset about them, a product that most companies could replace or do away with. Because while less covert labeling is, theoretically a nice thing, there are still plenty of dubious ways to hide icky ingredients under scientific names (again, most people don’t realize that castoreum is as gross as it is).
Instead, food manufacturers should feel pressure to serve customers what they want–and if what they want is not beaver juice and crushed bugs, they may consider using fewer secret ingredients, and more natural ones. Because, while not all natural flavors are dubious…plenty probably are. Like that Starbucks VIA packet. I’m sure it’s just made with cinnamon, allspice, and…well, maybe a little castoreum. But until consumers demand that companies be more forthright, there’s no way of knowing.
Image via Starbucks