Flavors are specific molecules or chemicals. Every food has a distinct flavor, that has no nutritional value, only a unique taste. For example, raspberry has a very specific taste. This flavor has a precise molecular structure that makes the fruit taste like a raspberry. When food manufacturers want their products, like ice creams, yoghurts or candies taste like this specific berry, they have different methods to apply: they can add real fruit, a fruit extract, natural or artificial flavorings to their foods.
How flavors are made?
The unique raspberry flavor can be "made" in three different ways:
Raspberry extract: it is derived from raspberries themselves by passing alcohol or an alcohol-water mixture, through the raspberries.
Natural raspberry flavor: chemicals are taken from raspberries, other plants or animal sources, they are rearranged and modified to achieve molecules with a raspberry taste.
Artificial flavor: created from petroleum and other chemicals.
All three will end up with the same chemical compound but via different mechanisms.
What does "natural flavor"mean?
The word “natural” has no formal legal definition, natural flavors are made by scientists the same way artificial flavors are. Actually, the word "natural" is a marketing strategy. It sounds appealing and healthy, although in most cases, there is nothing natural and healthy about the final product.
Natural flavor doesn’t mean that the flavor comes from the actual product itself. For example, a "natural raspberry flavor" doesn't not necessarily come from raspberries. It is derived from a natural source, like a plant or an animal, and made in a lab via different chemical processes. After these processes, the compound's original structure is completely altered. Natural flavors have to contain natural substances, but they can also contain many other ingredients like preservatives, synthetic solvents, emulsifiers, carriers and other additives, and these can make up to 80% of the whole product. Here are a few examples what natural flavors can include: amyl acetate, ethyl butyrate, various aliphatic acid ester, vanillin, lemon essential oil, essential oils, aldehyde C10, acetaldehyde, dimethyl benzyl carbinyl acetate, benzyl formate, phenyl ethyl isobutyrate, isopropyl isovalerate, and potentially some synthetic ingredients like cyclohexyl acetate, allyl butyrate, and cyclohexyl butyrate. The term “natural flavor”can contain all these chemicals without mentioning them separately. While food processors must list all the ingredients on a food label, flavor manufacturers do not have to disclose their ingredients.We can say that natural flavor is a secret ingredient in our food, that can contain many harmful chemicals without them being listed on the food label.
Natural raspberry flavor
So, what ingredients does natural raspberry flavor include? The answer is, we don't know.
As manufacturers are not obliged to list the ingredients, it's impossible for us, consumers to know them. I tried to research it online, but couldn't find any clear information.
Natural raspberry flavor can include real raspberries in the form of raspberry extract. This is a good thing and it is usually listed as an ingredient. Under the umbrella term "natural flavor" plant or animal compounds and more than 100 different chemicals can be found. As an example, castoreum is often added as a flavor enhancer to raspberry flavor. It is a bitter, strong smelling, creamy orange substance from the beaver's castor sac, located between the pelvis and base of the tail. Did you know about this?
What are the health risks of "natural" flavors?
There are potentially major health concerns regarding natural flavors.
Many food additives have been shown to increase intestinal permeability that is highly correlated with autoimmune and other chronic diseases.
Natural flavors as such haven't been studied so there's no scientific data on long term health risks. As they can contain many potentially harmful chemicals, it's hard to believe that they do any good to our health. Additionally, their components can be derived from genetically engineered crops as well.
Just like artificial sweeteners, they make the foods addictive, so people will eat more of the products they are added to. This is great news for the food manufacturers, but it can be detrimental for people's health.
What should we, consumers, do?
In the United States almost every packaged food has added flavor. It is the fourth common ingredient in prepared foods. Natural flavors are added to cereals, canola bars, yoghurts, meat products, flavored water and tea bags. Even non-organic butter has added flavor.
The best thing we can do is eat only whole foods, avoid fast and packaged foods. In any case, reading food labels is a must! If sometimes you don't have a choice and need to eat ready food, buy only certified organic products as they have much stricter regulations than conventional foods. But as a rule of thumb, my advice is to eat real, clean whole foods without any additives.