“It always makes me smile when someone says [the term ‘natural flavors’] is ambiguous, because it’s very clearly defined for people in the industry,” Marie Wright, chief global flavorist for Archer Daniels Midland, says. “But I do think there’s a lot of misinterpretation in that arena.”
Anyone who’s browsed the shelves of their local grocery store will of course be familiar with the phrase “contains natural flavors.” In fact, in its research of 80,000 food products, the non-profit Environmental Working Group found that natural flavors are the fourth most common ingredient listed on food labels, behind salt, water, and sugar.
Scour the alcohol section of a grocery store and natural flavors are once again commonplace, most notably on the packaging of hard seltzers. Head to the liquor store, too, and you’ll find natural flavors listed on the labels of many distilled spirits, including flavored vodka, rum, gin, brandy, and even whiskey.
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But familiarity with the term does not equate to understanding. And the “misinterpretation” surrounding the ingredient, as Wright describes it, persists.
A Google search of the query “what are natural flavors” returns articles with headlines that border on scaremongering, including: “The Horrifying Truth Behind Natural Flavors,” “Are ‘Natural Flavors’ Really Natural?”, and “Natural Flavors- Added Flavor or Added Risk?”
As Wright points out, there are set-in-stone guidelines for what constitutes a natural flavor (we’ll get to those briefly), but clearly, some still question the validity of the term “natural.” So why the great divide?
What Are Natural Flavors and How Are They Made?
The Food and Drug Administration’s definition of a natural flavor is long and complicated, and includes technical jargon like “oleoresin,” “protein hydrolysate,” and “enzymolysis.” But essentially, it refers to natural flavors as the oils, resins, or other extracts derived from natural sources, which include animals, spices, fruits, vegetables, and plants.
Flavorist scientists such as Wright recreate flavor profiles found in nature for commercial use. They work with clients, including large-scale alcohol brands, to develop new flavors by extracting solids and essential oils from natural sources, and by harnessing scientific processes that range from the familiar (distillation and fermentation) to the highly technical (chromatography).
This process takes place in a lab, which is why some may feel air quotes are required when talking about natural flavors. Another reason for skepticism is that, per the FDA’s regulations, any combination of naturally derived ingredients can be used to create a natural flavor, even if the ingredients have no relation to the product they’re trying to mimic.
So the natural strawberry flavoring in a popular hard seltzer brand, for example, may also contain extracts taken from raspberry and jasmine, as well as molecules created by fermenting other natural ingredients. On product labels, however, the ingredient will still be listed as natural strawberry flavor.
According to Wright, there’s a good reason for this. “When you extract strawberry, it’s mainly water,” she explains. “Most of the volatiles are there in such small amounts, it really doesn’t taste of strawberry.” To recreate the flavor profile we as consumers expect, the other ingredients are essential.
In other instances, the flavors we associate with certain fruits may not even be present in the fruit itself. Black cherry, Wright says, is a great example. “When you taste black cherries, they don’t have a lot of flavor,” she says. “They’re slightly fruity, but a lot of the appeal comes from the texture and the juiciness. If you make [a flavor] that really replicates a true black cherry, then it’s not consumer-preferred.”
How Is the Flavor Industry Regulated?
The burning question for many consumers is whether these flavorings are indeed natural and, more importantly, safe.
Wright explains that, for the most part, the flavor industry self-regulates. But flavor manufacturers, such as Archer Daniels Midland, work closely with organizations like the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States (FEMA) to ensure all of their ingredients comply with national regulations. “Everything we use goes through toxicology screenings,” she says. “Safety is our top priority.”
Archer Daniels Midland also employs regulatory experts who keep a file of every formula the company creates. “If somebody came in and wanted to audit [us], it would all be there,” Wright says.
When alcohol brands wish to release a new product, they need to submit the beverage’s formula to governmental agencies such as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and the FDA for review. (The TTB has jurisdiction over distilled spirits, wines above 7 percent ABV, and brewed products made with both malted barley and hops — essentially beer; the FDA oversees the rest. In reality, however, the two agencies regularly work closely together.)
When reviewing the composition of new products, the TTB and the FDA check that there are no prohibited ingredients in the beverage (including in its flavorings) and that the levels of certain ingredients do not exceed what’s legally allowed. They’ll also dissect whether any claims being made on the beverage’s proposed label — if its flavoring is “natural,” for example — are accurate.
“We’re trying to make sure [producers] are not misleading the consumer as to what it is that’s in the bottle,” Tom Hogue, a spokesperson for the TTB, tells VinePair.
Natural Flavors vs. Fresh Ingredients
In the case of ingredients such as strawberries and cherries, which don’t have concentrated flavors, the need to work with flavor manufacturers seems fairly straightforward. But if you’ve ever juiced a Valencia orange, or expressed a lemon peel over a cocktail, you’ll know that some of nature’s bounties are highly expressive in their most basic form. So why, then, do we still manufacture natural flavors for these ingredients?
For a start, flavorings offer a more cost-efficient option than fresh ingredients. They also nullify the risk of things like vintage variation.
“At one time, there were 10 times more grape-flavored products than grapes grown,” Gary Reineccius, a flavor chemist at the University of Minnesota, told NPR in a 2017 interview. “If you’re going to use all your grapes on grape soda, you don’t have any for wine. It would be exceedingly expensive. Then what do you do with the byproduct you create after you’ve sucked all the juice out of the grape?”
Using natural flavors also allows “consistency of quality,” Wright explains, and helps provide a product that’s stable for the entire shelf life of the food or beverage it’s used in. (Those among us who have picked up an old, dusty IPA from the shelf of their local beer shop will know just how quickly the flavors provided by fresh ingredients, such as hops, can degrade over time.)
Ultimately, Wright says, the flavor industry is not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. “We’re not out to trick people; we follow the regulations,” she says.
The FDA’s guidelines do ensure that the term “natural flavors” is not ambiguous in the same way as, say, a “handmade” vodka, or a “small batch” bourbon. But just how “natural” an ingredient that’s produced by a scientist in a lab is, remains up for (mis)interpretation. And for now, at least, neither the FDA nor the TTB holds jurisdiction over semantics.