Pick up any packaged, processed food, and there's a decent chance that one of its listed ingredients will be "natural flavor." The ingredient sounds good, particularly in contrast to another common and mysterious ingredient, "artificial flavor." But what exactly does natural flavor mean? When a reader posed the question, I contacted nutritionists and flavorists — yes, that's a profession — to find out.
"Basically, if something is a natural flavor, it's derived from some natural source," explains Charles Platkin, director of the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines "natural flavor" as oils, resins or other extracts derived from natural sources like plants, meat or seafood. Processes like heating or fermentation are used to extract the flavor. The function of these products is flavoring, not to add any nutritional content.
"We do a lot of this in cooking," says Chef Bruce Mattel, senior associate dean of culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America. "Let's say I poach shrimp in water. Then I take that big pot and reduce it all the way down to a teaspoon of shrimp essence." That essence could then be added to a different dish. The food industry does this on a massive scale — scientists find the chemical responsible for a specific flavor in nature, extract it, and then add it to candy, beverages and throngs of other processed products.
When consumers see "natural flavor" on a beverage label, they shouldn't assume that someone is zesting oranges into their bottle, says Mattel. Even though natural flavor must come from natural sources, it need not all come from the plant or meat whose flavor is being mimicked. For example, orange flavor might contain not only orange extract, but also extracts from bark and grass.