What does Natural Flavorings Mean in Packaged Food?

If it isn’t natural, what would it be? Supernatural?

My dictionary lists fourteen meanings for the adjective natural, ranging from “not adopted” (for the parent of a child) to “neither sharped nor flatted” (for a musical note).

Many consumers appear to believe that natural is a synonym for good or healthful, as opposed to anything made or processed by humans. But Nature hides many decidedly unfriendly chemicals in our foods. Many of the trace-amount chemicals responsible for the natural flavors of foods are so toxic in larger amounts that they would never be approved by the FDA as additives.

Consider also that the chemical amygdalin, a “natural” glycoside found in apricot and peach pits, reacts with an enzyme in the stomach to produce prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide), the lethal gas that has been used to execute convicted criminals. A close chemical derivative of amygdalin called Laetrile has been promoted as a cure for cancer by certain alternative-medicine clinics. The fact that the American Cancer Society has labeled Laetrile quackery hasn’t stopped many Americans from traveling to Mexico for “treatment.”

Prussic acid is also present in the cassava tuber, a.k.a. manioc, yucca, and tapioca root, which when grated has to be thoroughly washed to remove the poison before it is made into flour and other products. I have bought flat, eighteen-inch discs of crisp, dry yucca bread from children on the roads in Venezuela, hoping that the raw material had been adequately washed, and I have survived.

To control the rampant use of the word natural on the labels of food products, the FDA has come up with a definition, at least in the context of flavor additives. The ubiquitous all-natural, which manufacturers use to sell everything from cosmetics to toilet cleaners (heavens!, you wouldn’t want an unnatural toilet cleaner, would you?) is not regulated and probably cannot be, because it can mean almost anything the manufacturer wants it to mean, including nothing at all.

The official FDA definition of natural flavoring is published in the Code of Federal Regulations (21CFRi01 =) in the form of more than a hundred words that meticulously plug every conceivable loophole and that would put a permanent wave in the brains of most lawyers, even if they knew what “hydrolysate” and “enzymolysis” meant in the definition.

In simple terms, a natural flavor is defined as a substance extracted, distilled, or otherwise obtained from plant or animal matter, either directly from the matter itself or after it has been roasted, heated, or fermented. Note the inclusion of “animal matter” in this definition, a revelation that would shock vegetarians to their carrot roots and send those who adhere to the kosher segregation of meat from dairy products running to their rabbis for elucidation. But animals are just as natural as plants, are they not? Note also that a natural flavor does not have to come from the food it is flavoring. For example, a natural flavor chemical derived from chicken, which needn’t necessarily taste like chicken, can be used to flavor a can of beef ravioli.

An artificial flavor, on the other hand, is defined straightforwardly by the FDA as any substance that does not fit the definition of a natural flavor. Ironically, such synthetic flavoring chemicals, though unabashedly unnatural, are acceptable in all restrictive diets from vegan to kosher, because they are neither animal nor vegetable. (You will search in vain for any philosophical or religious injunctions against, dimethylpyrazine, the prominent artificial-flavor chemical in chocolate.) Furthermore, most of the chemical compounds in both artificial and natural flavors are not recognized as food by our digestive systems and are not metabolized. That’s why you won’t find them listed in the Nutrition Facts chart; they are not nutrients and are at any rate present in only trace amounts.

Not often realized is the fact that all flavoring additives, natural or artificial, are made by humans. To make an artificial flavor, a flavor chemist (called a flavorist) in a laboratory has to select and blend the right chemical compounds in the right proportions to simulate a natural flavor. And to make a natural flavor, someone in another laboratory or factory has to extract and distill or concentrate the flavor compounds from the raw plant or animal materials.

An even less appreciated fact is that in many cases the man-made flavoring chemicals are identical to Nature’s flavoring chemicals. For example, one of the primary flavor chemicals in bananas is isoamyl acetate, which can be made synthetically and used as a (rather poor) imitation of banana flavor.

Most natural flavors, however, are much more complex than that. Some thirty-seven different chemical compounds have been identified in the flavor of mangoes, and more than eight hundred in the aroma of coffee. To imitate the effects of these natural flavors on the palate, a flavorist must blend a dozen or more chemicals, no single one of which hits the flavor nail directly on the head.

An interesting case is the vanilla bean, most of whose natural flavor comes from its 2 percent content of vanillin, known to chemists by its nickname, 4 hydroxy3methoxy benzaldehyde. If this and the other natural vanilla flavors are extracted into alcohol, the product may legally be labeled Pure Vanilla Extract, a “natural” flavoring. But if the product contains synthetic vanillin, which can be made by any of several processes, it must be labeled Imitation Vanilla Flavoring.

But get this: If the synthetic vanillin was made not by combining chemicals in a laboratory but by allowing bacteria to ferment ferulic acid, a chemical obtained from corn or rice, it may be labeled Natural Vanilla Flavor, because fermentation is a “natural” process. The vanillin obtained by the fermentation, however, is absolutely identical to the vanillin made in the lab.

The bottom-line issue for cooks is “Does artificial vanilla flavoring taste as good as natural vanilla flavoring?” Well, in taste panels convened by Cook’s Illustrated magazine over a period of several years, the imitation vanilla flavoring was actually preferred over the natural product. So there.