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What does "natural" and "artificial flavor" mean?

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

Key to the Mountain does NOT use any natural or artificial flavors. We don’t need to because our high quality products don’t need them. This is to say that I am not experienced with natural or artificial flavors. But in doing research, here’s what I’ve found:

What is flavor?

All things are made of molecules/chemicals and the body recognizes these chemicals as flavor when the chemical touches the tongue. Sometimes this fact is used to argue that since artificial flavors simply mimic the chemistry of nature, they are good and safe. However, not all flavor chemicals can actually be found in nature. Sucralose (Splenda) is a good example.

What is artificial flavor?

Artificial flavors are usually synthetic and made in a lab. Their man made chemical structure happens to have a specific flavor. For the lists of artificially made chemicals that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS): search online for 21 cfr172.515(b) and 21cfr182.6. The former lists chemicals that are called “artificial flavors” on a label. The list, being over 700 chemicals, is too long to paste here, but some examples include Allyl cyclohexaneproprionate (pictured above), Ammonium sulfide, Butyraldehyde,Cadinene, 2,6-Dimethyl-5-heptenal…you get the idea.

A brief side note on GRAS (generally recognized as safe):

The FDA gives this term to food additives that have been in circulation for a long time and have not created any direct negative health consequences. In studies determining the safety of these products (which are usually funded by the corporations trying to get them passed), they show that they are indeed safe in small amounts. The problem I have with this is that neither the studies or FDA take into account these questions: Is a small amount over a long period of time still a small amount, and at what point does it become a large amount? As for the rest of us-shouldn't we judge food by it's healthiness rather than it's safety?

A random side note about labeling I found reading about labeling of flavors:

"When a coloring has been added to butter, cheese, or ice cream, it need

not be declared in the ingredient list unless such declaration is required

by a regulation in part 73 or part 74 of this chapter to ensure safe

conditions of use for the color additive. Voluntary declaration of all

colorings added to butter, cheese, and ice cream, however, is recommended. "21CFR101.22 K3

Weird…I’m imagining if you watered down your dairy, and recolored it?

What is natural flavor?

A natural flavor, according to the Food and Drug Administration, (FDA) means a flavor (chemical) used solely for flavor that originally comes from a natural source. The natural flavor has to come from what it's trying to mimic, otherwise it must be called "artificial."

Coming from a natural source, according to FDA 21CFR101.22 means "the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant

material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof...."

This definition does not consider if the flavor substance has been chemically transformed during the manufacturing process. A good example of this is the new sugar substitute allulose. Allulose is naturally found in small amounts in grains and raisins. However, the allulose being mass marketed as an all natural sugar substitute is chemically derived-not from grains or raisins, but from a chemical reaction with corn and chemical solvents/enzymes. Because of the vague definition of natural, this unnatural process can result in a “natural” product. Furthermore, the emulsifiers, solvents, and preservatives that are used in the manufacturing of flavors are called "incidental additives" and don't need to be on the label.

What about natural flavor in a certified organic product?

In order for a natural flavor to be able to be put in a certified organic product, it has to meet strict requirements. This is because the FDA and NOP (National Organic Program) disagree on what is okay in food. The FDA does not consider the chemical transformation of natural products, but the NOP does. According to the NOP, "Allowed natural extraction materials include water, natural ethanol, super-critical carbon dioxide, authentic essential oil, and natural vegetable oils. No hydrocarbon, chlorinated, or halogenated solvents may be used. Propane, hexane, triglycerides, and freon are examples of solvents that are prohibited."

Source: “QAI natural flavor questionnaire.”

The questions this creates is this: how is the natural flavor extracted? One can conclude that "natural flavor" can be derived from a natural source using freon!

Further guidelines of a natural flavor in organic food and just certified organic food in general:

No synthetic carrier systems or any artificial preservatives.

No propylene glycol.

No polyglycerol esters of fatty acids, mono-, di-, and tri-glycerides.

No benzoic acid.

No polysorbate 80.

No genetically modified organisms.

No cell fusion.

No microencapsulation.

No microencapsulation.

No recombinant DNA technology.

No ionizing Radiation.

No nanotechnology.

The fact that the NOP has to state that all of these things are prohibited makes me assume that these extraction methods are being used today. By the way, I haven't seen a regulation saying "no heavy metals," which also seems odd...

Depending on how you spin it, any of these could be fine or not. I would certainly not be marketed into thinking that if something is "made with natural flavors" that it says anything about its health benefits. But I want to point out a bigger issue here, and that is why are we even using natural and artificial flavors (or colors) at all? Isn’t food already flavored? What quality issues are being covered up? At Key to the Mountain, we love food to taste good. People ask us how our products can taste so good. Real food has a complex flavor profile. “Natural flavors” are no match for the nuances of the real thing because only a few specific chemicals are mimicked in flavoring, where as real food has a complex taste profile. We use the highest quality food and spices to flavor our food. With no fillers, we are actually concentrating the nature given robust flavors of the highest quality foods we cook. So how does our food taste so good? In short: it's food.

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