Updated: Jul 12, 2018
Have you ever been mid-bite of something that you thought was healthy and then thought it was too good to be true, grabbed the box, scoped the ingredients label only to find no "vanilla" listed in your gf/vegan vanilla shortbread cookie and instead you find "natural flavors"? Oh right... yeah, me neither.
So what the heck are natural flavors anyway? Sounds sketch but let's look into it.
According to celebrity nutritionist Kerry Glassman, MS, RD in this Coveteur article, "natural flavor" is a general term used to describe a chemical that was originally derived from a natural source. But if that's the case, then why wouldn't the label just say "vanilla bean" instead of "natural flavors"? The Code of Federal Regulations describes natural flavors as a flavor that is less than minimally processed; which might include smoking, freezing, drying, fermenting or roasting; as long as the purpose is to make the food edible, preserve it or make it safe for human consumption. Ok...so... what are natural flavors, again?
Natural flavors can be an essential oil, essence, distillate, oleoresin or any product of roasting/heating/extraction from a spice, fruit, herb, root, vegetable, egg, seafood, pork, or dairy thats sole purpose is to add flavor to a product and not nutritional function. In other words, this plant or animal byproduct has been so concentrated and processed that it no longer provides any nutritional value nor resembles the natural product it actually came from. Oh, ok. There it is.
I was surprised to learn that a flavor derived from something that was once a cow can fall under the label of "natural flavors" but technically a cow is natural and food regulators in America are only interested in the hard facts.
In this case, just because it's natural doesn't mean it's necessarily better than artificial. I mean, arsenic is natural. It's also extremely toxic to humans. Cacao is natural. It can also send your puppy off to the ER. The point is: read your nutrition label. Understand what you are fueling your body with, and most importantly, p a y a t t e n t i o n t o h o w y o u f e e l. At the end of the day, you will feel better when you fuel yourself with whole foods in their original form, because that is what our bodies are made for!
More in depth info on natural flavors here, by Well + Good.