Is there anything Natural about Natural Flavor?

 In Blog

I was recently preparing for a class and doing a bit of research on flavoring and fragrance. I just have to share, much as I know we all love when Pumpkin Spice season hits, it’s important to know what you are consuming in that “yummy” flavored drink or inhaling in that “sweetly scented” candle. I say this in quotes because once you are aware of what you are putting into your body, you may not feel so sweet about it anymore. 

Let’s start with that coveted Pumpkin Spice drink. Unfortunately, those flavors, even when they say “natural” are anything but from nature. The least of the offenders in “natural” flavoring is the sugar content, the regular version of most popular flavoring syrups has 19 grams of sugar. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

The brand I see most frequently is Torani, so I focused my research there. And since it’s pumpkin spice season, I funneled in on the Pumpkin Spice syrup flavoring. Here is the ingredient list: Water, Natural Flavors, Citric Acid, Sodium Benzoate, Potassium Sorbate, Caramel Color. 

Let’s explore “Natural Flavors” for just a minute. According to the FDA, natural flavors are created from substances extracted from these plant or animal sources: 

  • Spices
  • Fruit or fruit juice
  • Vegetable or vegetable juice
  • Edible yeast, herbs, bark, buds, roots, leaves or similar plant material
  • Meat, seafood, poultry
  • Eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products

These flavors can be obtained by roasting, heating or enzymolysis (the decomposition of a chemical compound catalyzed by the presence of an enzyme).  

The function of these substances in food is for flavoring rather than nutritional value. 

This “natural flavors” label is becoming increasingly popular throughout the grocery store. This is what makes the task of trying to buy good, healthy food for your family more difficult than it should be. Especially as your kids get older and can read. I mean if I can be tricked by “natural flavors” you better believe my 8 year old can be. Here’s the sad truth, natural flavors are complex mixtures – with more than 100 ingredients not required to be disclosed as they are considered the manufacturer’s “proprietary formula”. They often contain BHT and BHA, as well as other additives that actually addict you to the flavor and ensure you keep coming back for more. Who has ever eaten just one Dorito or Oreo? Have you thought about why you crave that Pumpkin Spice Latte and are jonesing for it the minute you feel a crisp, fall day and see Halloween decorations out? 

These proprietary formulas are created by specially trained food chemists or flavorists. These “ingredients’ are typically chemicals including preservatives, solvents and more. As long as the original flavoring source comes from a plant or an animal material, the company can add more than 100 other chemicals and call it “Natural Flavor”. To compound the issue, since “natural” has no official definition, they can be coming from genetically modified crops as well. 

The bottom line….natural isn’t coming from nature in this sense and it’s best to just avoid it. 

Moving on from natural flavors, let’s review the next two ingredients Sodium Benzoate and Potassium Sorbate. 

Sodium Benzoate is a preservative used to prolong shelf life. This can cause inflammation, ADHD, oxidative stress (free radicals which damage your cells and increase chronic disease risk), and allergy issues. The biggest concern is that this man-made product can convert to benzene, a known carcinogen. (If you aren’t sure what a carcinogen is…google it). 

You often read disclaimers that the levels or amounts of things such as sodium benzoate are so small, the amount is not significant enough to harm you. For example, the FDA states that sodium benzoate levels in food are allowed at a maximum level of 0.1 percent. However, the real issue becomes the cumulative effect. So, yes this one flavored coffee may not have enough sodium benzoate to harm you, but how many things did you consume today that contained “Natural Flavor” and therefore sodium benzoate or other chemicals with similar properties. These chemicals are getting into our bodies from multiple sources, both in food and personal care products (remember your skin is your largest organ) and our body can’t break them down. So, they accumulate and can lead to significant health problems. 

Potassium Sorbate is the next ingredient on the list. It is also a preservative added to prolong shelf life. It is an odorless and tasteless salt synthetically produced from sorbic acid and potassium hydroxide. It was discovered in the 1850’s by the French, originally derived from berries of the mountain ash tree. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes it as generally safe when used appropriately. Does that statement make anyone else tilt their head? What exactly does that mean? How much of it is safe? And who decides if it’s being used “appropriately”. And if it’s in 50 products I use today and it’s “appropriate” when I consume a little but not a lot, how do I know that? 

For example, in 2015, the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) reviewed potassium sorbate and two other food additives. In response to this investigation, they set a limit to the daily intake of potassium sorbate for a 150-pound adult to 1,750 mcg per day. Trouble is, most things don’t list the amount of these chemicals in the food you are buying. 

Back to ingredients in the Torani flavoring, in the sugar-free version the sugar content is lowered, but you add Xanthan Gum, Sucralose (Splenda), and there is even a warning that it contains “Dairy Allergens” 

There are plenty of great sugar substitutes out there, unfortunately Splenda isn’t one of them. Splenda includes dextrose (glucose) and maltodextrin which actually bring the calorie count of this “sugar-free” substitute up. Sucralose is made from sugar in a multi-step chemical process in which 3 hydrogen-oxygen groups are replaced with chlorine atoms.

Sucralose at high temperatures (like in your hot coffee) may break down and produce chloropropanols – a carcinogen. Sucralose also negatively affects gut health by reducing the good bacteria in your gut. We know that 70-80% of our immunity is based on our gut health. A key to overall wellness to keep our healthy gut bacteria at it’s peak performance. For a better sugar substitute, consider Raw Honey, Coconut Sugar, or Stevia. 

The best way to avoid additives in your food and drinks is to avoid or minimize processed foods, shop the outside perimeter of your grocery store, purchase whole foods, and shop local farmer’s markets whenever possible. To ease into this, try eating food that has less than 5 ingredients when you do purchase processed food. Remember if one of the ingredients is “Natural Flavor” you just crossed the threshold of 100+ ingredients with two little words.

I found my research so enlightening, making these changes definitely aren’t easy, but made in small steps overtime, you truly can change your health trajectory and your life. It’s worth it friends, we only get one life. I promise you, as you make these changes, however difficult, but you will start to feel better, have more energy, be clear-headed, and see noticeable positive effects. So today’s small step is to cut natural flavors out, start the process of reading labels and being more aware. 

Be Well Friends,



Stay Tuned for my research on fragrance. 


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