The words “natural flavor,” or some slight variation is used more often today, and especially with many food products that we used to take for granted was nutritious.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), whose job is to protect the public health by assuring the safety of our nation’s food supply. It seems that many of the regulations they create are very broad and tends to favor food manufacturers. Here is the FDA definition of “natural flavor”. It is “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.” That really opens up a huge door for food manufacturing companies to add all kinds of concoctions and not be required to disclose the real ingredients because they can call it a “natural flavor” or “flavoring”.
Natural flavorings are typically prepared in a laboratory by individuals who identify the chemical factors in foods that give them their taste. These experts then isolate the chemicals that do the job so they can be added to the target food item. Hundreds of different compounds can be involved in a simple natural flavor such as cherry or vanilla or tomato.
This means it is possible for a food that seems to be vegetarian or vegan to have natural flavors that come from animals, such as beef flavoring in fast food French fries.
Any of the plants or animals mentioned in the FDA definition could have been grown with or subjected to any number of hazardous and artificial ingredients, such as pesticides and herbicides.
Food manufacturers are not required by the FDA to tell you what is in their natural flavor formulas. That doesn’t mean you can’t contact the company and ask, but you may be told it is proprietary information.
If you want true natural flavor, avoid processed foods and stick to the real food—whole fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds, beans, nuts, and legumes. Growing your own food as much as possible eliminates a whole host of problems. When purchasing manufactured foods take time to read the label carefully. One shortcut you can start with is if the ingredients list is longer that 6-10 items, it might be better just to put it back on the shelf.