Hey Laura, how natural are “natural flavors”?

Kristina writes:

Many food labels have “natural flavors” listed in the ingredients.  What does that mean?  I first started wondering when I picked up a bottle of Simply Heinz ketchup at the grocery store.  While I know it’s not health food, I enjoy ketchup with certain things now and then, and was drawn to this particular brand when I saw the (relatively) short, and easy-to-pronounce ingredients list.  Other brands have much more complicated ingredients, and many of them contain HFCS.  However, “natural flavoring” is the last ingredient of Simply Heinz, and I’ve since found it in several other things.

I’ve done a bit of my own research, but many of the websites I looked at gave conflicting answers.  The main thing I gather is that “natural flavors” may not be natural at all.  What can you tell me?


Your instincts are most likely correct, Kristina. If the ingredient has to be hidden behind an ambiguous term like “natural flavor,” it probably isn’t what you and I would consider truly natural.

Just like their artificial counterparts, “natural flavors” are made in a lab by chemists called “Flavorists.” The only difference between “natural flavors” and “artificial flavors” is that the molecular foundation of the “natural flavors” were derived from something you and I might have once recognized as a fruit, vegetable, spice, or - yes - bit of pig, chicken, or cow.

The FDA’s definition of “Natural flavor” is as follows:

The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means 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 FDA link up there has a headache-inducing list of rules for package labeling. If you want more reading of a less dizzying variety, this Washington Post article entitled “What’s Natural?” is very well done.

At the risk of sounding redundant, my advice is to predominantly eat food that doesn’t come with labels attached!

I do realize that certain important exceptions must be made, and ketchup is an incredibly necessary resident of my fridge as well! If you’re looking for a ketchup that doesn’t have natural flavoring in the ingredient list, Muir Glen Organic Tomato Ketchup has a classic ketchupy taste without HFCS, GMOs or any other weird stuff.

Hey Laura, I think... Hey Laura, how natural are “natural flavors”?

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