The Unnatural Nature of Natural Flavors

When I buy my groceries for the week I try to find the healthiest food as well as the cheapest. That usually includes things like bananas, apples, yogurt, vegetables, and chicken. This past grocery run, already skeptical of any pre-prepared meals but wanting something quick, I grabbed a couple of the Marketplace Lean Cuisines.

The one I ate today was actually pretty good too. The chicken tasted real enough, and it was refreshing to have some real vegetables in a boxed meal.¬† However, because I’m always on the hunt for those pesky chemicals, I checked the label. I read down the list, which mostly contained ingredients like broccoli, carrots, tomato puree, etc. I was suprised by the amount of whole ingredients they could fit in this meal. But then I read the last ingredient on the label: “and other natural flavors”. I had seen this ingredient before but I never paid it much mind. But this time, it was a little too vague for my liking, so I did some research.

The FDA doesn’t actually have any solid definition for natural flavors, which is concerning. However, it is understood that they are produced from plants or animal byproducts that have been processed so much that they cannot specifically be listed on any label. So while the label reads “natural” these flavors cause the same amount of damage to our bodies as artificial flavors, which are completely man-made. Natural flavors also do not provide any nutritional value and are solely used for flavoring.

And it’s not just these Lean Cuisines that contain natural flavors. This is the fourth most common ingredient used to make so much of the food we buy in grocery stores. The next time you’re in your local store check out foods like certain brands of mustard, mayonnaise, salsa, cookies, juice, dairy and non-dairy milk, chips, and the list goes on and on. And sometimes these natural flavors can even be hiding behind names like amyl acetate, citral, benzaldehyde, and castoreum to provide specific flavors. Though it is scarcely used because it’s so expensive, castoreum is extracted from the anal secretions of beavers for its vanilla flavor. Anal secretions. I don’t want anything like that going near my mouth, let alone throughout my entire body!

The moral of the story is that we never know where these fake flavors are hiding, so it is always best to buy the most natural foods you can find. Switch out those convenient Lean Cuisines for a nice medley of fresh vegetables and chicken breast. Or make up an organic pasta dish with spinach and tomatoes. But whatever you decide to make, check those labels and make sure those “natural flavors” aren’t lurking anywhere in your pantry!