No word better sums up our society's near-obsessive pursuit of "healthy" lifestyles. Incidentally, no word is as ambiguous in meaning.
But "natural" is a word worth understanding. The market for health food is so big that even Walmart is getting on board, and the global market is expected to be worth $1 trillion by 2017. Thus slapped on so many of the wholesome sauces, salsas, chips, cereals and drinks that fill our healthy pantries is the word "natural," specifically the phrase "natural flavors."
Switching from artificial to natural flavor is an easy way for food companies to lure in customers (and cheaper than getting organic certification). But the people getting lured might have the wrong idea: While "natural flavors" conjures up images of fresh-squeezed juice and sun-ripened raspberries, they're mostly made from chemicals and produced in a lab — just like artificial flavors. And they aren't always healthier for you.
What makes a flavor "natural"? The term "natural flavors" is actually regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, unlike foods simply labeled with the meaningless word "natural." The only flavors that can call themselves natural are those that were at one point derived from a living plant or animal. Artificial flavors are 100% synthetic. But they can still be hard to tell apart.
Take, for example, orange flavor. While the chemistry of any orange flavor will be similar, it's how it gets from peel to plate that makes the difference in designation. "Natural orange flavor is the essential oil of the orange," said John Hallagan, general counsel for the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association. "It's simply pressed and extracted from the peel."
While an artificial flavor is an amalgamation of chemicals mixed together in a lab, natural flavors use methods that most of us are familiar with: roasting, heating, fermentation and pressure. "Artificial flavors are produced using methods that would be characterized as chemistry," Hallagan said. "Natural flavors are produced using traditional food processes that we use in the kitchen."
But natural flavors have chemicals too. Even an orange peel contains 50 or 60 chemicals that mix to create what we think of as "orange flavor." One main chemical, called limonene, makes a citrus taste like a citrus, while the rest can be tweaked, added or omitted to get the version of flavor a company desires.
"Flavorists have an artist's palette of substances to choose from," Hallagan said. That's why we find huge variations of, say, strawberry flavor in our food.
What are we actually getting when we buy foods made with mysterious "natural flavors"? The short answer: often hundreds of things. In addition to the chemicals that add flavor, companies can use artificial solvents, emulsifiers or preservatives to help balance taste and texture.
Natural flavors aren't necessarily better for you. "There is that feeling that natural flavor is better and healthier for you," Dave Andrews, senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, told Mic.
Because of that, we pony up, sometimes paying ten times more for a natural flavor than an identical artificial one. Beverage companies in particular like to use the positive image that "natural" conjures up to their advantage. Alternative soda companies like Hansen's brag that their products "have always been free of preservatives, caffeine, sodium, artificial flavors and colors," a seemingly surefire selling point in this age of healthy habits.
The same healthy eating impulse behind "natural" has also propelled the rise in organics: Since 1990, organic sales have grown by 3,400%, and natural flavors have grown along with them. Organic foods are not allowed to use artificial flavor. But while eating organic cuts down on pesticide use, consuming natural flavors has little effect on the planet, nor does it make you healthier.
"The differentiation [between natural and artificial] is extremely small," Andrews said; they're both pretty safe, and both chemically similar. For those who are worried about scientists tweaking their food, they might as well stick to real juice or fruit and leave the all flavored foods — natural and artificial — behind.