Originally Published: on Feb 1, 2019 | The New York Times | By Roni Caryn Rabin
Food manufacturers add flavorings to a surprising number of basic products, like Breyers Natural Vanilla ice cream.
Q. I heard that “natural flavors” added to flavored seltzer water are not natural, because of a loophole in the regulations covering additives. Is that true?
A. Government regulations define natural flavors as those that derive their aroma or flavor chemicals from plant or animal sources, including fruit, meat, fish, spices, herbs, roots, leaves, buds or bark that are distilled, fermented or otherwise manipulated in a lab. This distinguishes them from artificial flavors, which use man-made chemicals to give a product its particular flavor or aroma.
The loophole, as it were, is that for nonorganic foods, the regulations do not restrict the dozens of other ingredients like preservatives and solvents that can go into a so-called natural flavor. Ultimately, because of the wide variety of ingredients that typically go into “natural” flavorings, “there does not seem to be much of a difference between natural and artificial flavors,” said David Andrews, a scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization.
While food processors must list all of the ingredients on a food label, flavor manufacturers do not have to disclose their ingredients. They can add synthetic solvents, preservatives, emulsifiers, carriers and other additives to a flavor that qualifies as natural under current regulations. Natural flavors allowed for use in certified organic foods are subject to a different, far more restrictive set of regulations. They cannot contain a long list of ingredients, including synthetic solvents, carriers and emulsifiers or artificial preservatives, said Gwendolyn Wyard, the Organic Trade Association’s vice president of regulatory and technical affairs. They must use non-petroleum-based solvents, cannot be irradiated and cannot use flavor extracts derived from genetically engineered crops.
Flavors labeled “organic flavors” or “organic natural flavors” are even more strictly regulated, consisting almost entirely of organic ingredients; the latter may contain a small amount of natural flavor as well.
Some food safety advocates recommend people with food allergies or dietary restrictions avoid food flavorings because the ingredients are not disclosed, but that is a difficult task. Food manufacturers add them to a surprising number of basic items, not just highly processed foods like candy, granola bars and frozen dinners but also to some cold cereals, flavored yogurts, canned soups and spaghetti sauces and even to some apple sauces and ice creams (including Breyers Natural Vanilla).