MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — They’re in everything from mac-and-cheese to salad dressing to bubbly water – natural flavors. After water, sugar and salt, natural flavors are the most common ingredient in processed food, according to the Environmental Working Group.

So, that had Zach from Lino Lakes wanting to know: “What are natural flavors?” Good Question.

“Flavors are odd in that category,” Gary Reineccius, a flavor scientist at the University of Minnesota, said.

He says flavors are the only additive officially defined by the Food and Drug Administration.

The full definition states, “The term natural flavor or natural flavoring 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, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. Natural flavors, include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants listed in subpart A of part 582 of this chapter, and the substances listed in 172.510 of this chapter.”

In simpler terms, a natural flavor must come from a natural product — like fruit, vegetables, roots or meats.

“They’re extracting natural material from plants and doing minimal processing to it,” Reineccius said.

He says, chemically, they are similar to artificial flavors created in a laboratory.

The natural product used for the flavor can be heated or distilled. For example, the flavor from lemon comes from the oil of lemon peel. Strawberry flavor comes from strawberries soaked in a water/alcohol mixture that can later be put into clear beverages.

Generally, the amounts of natural flavor used are tiny.

Reineccius says some food would be too bland for consumers’ taste buds without some extra flavoring.

“It may lack some intensity that people like,” he said. “They’re trying to deliver something people like.”

The FDA doesn’t test every single chemical used in food additives, but does require anything used in natural flavors to be a on list of chemicals that are “generally recognized as safe.”

“I’ve fed my children and children’s children things with artificial flavors,” Reineccius said. “I’m completely comfortable with it — artificial flavors and natural flavors.”

Heather Brown

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