There is strategy behind why I seldom grocery-shop with my boys these days. They are hungry all the time and are invariably drawn to snack foods. As we recently walked the grocery aisles together, I attempted to fill our cart with real food, and they stuffed microwave popcorn and ice cream sandwiches under the arugula. We found ourselves amazed at how many unambiguously unhealthy products advertise the seemingly healthy label “natural flavors.”
One of my boys asked me what natural flavors actually means, and I explained that the term is very vague. It definitely doesn’t mean that the food is nutritious or chemical-free. In the food and cosmetics industries, the term “all natural” is poorly regulated, so manufacturers may use it even when their products are full of chemicals and preservatives — not at all what we think of as natural.
The FDA defines a natural flavor as a substance extracted, distilled or similarly derived from plant or animal matter, either as is or after it has been roasted, heated or fermented, and whose function is for flavor, not nutrition. Foods that should be vegetarian can include flavors that are derived from animals, and foods can have flavors that outwardly have nothing to do with the food involved. An example of these incongruities is wine that includes traces of eggs or fish.
As we walked the aisles, one of my kids asked why orange juice would need any surplus flavor. There are a few reasons extra flavors are added to foods. They can replace flavors that food processing and pasteurizing removed (probably the case with the orange juice he spotted); they help food taste fresh even when it is not (again, perhaps the case with the orange juice); they create an appealing smell that will entice the consumer to eat the product (Cheetos have a distinct cheese smell, though very little actual cheese in them); and they create a more concentrated, short-lived flavor that will leave someone wanting more (as is the case with many chewing gums).
My boys observed that the words “natural flavors” seemed to be on most of the food packages they spotted at the store. In fact, the Environmental Working Group found in its research of 80,000 food products that only salt, water and sugar are listed more often than natural flavors on food labels. We all know that we aren’t supposed to eat too much sugar or salt, and water seems to be a safe bet, but what about that fourth most popular ingredient? Are we safe to consume a heap of natural flavors?
There is usually only a very small amount of chemical flavoring in each food, so eating some Cheetos is not a huge health risk. Still, many of the chemicals are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so we don’t really know the impact that years of consuming these additives will have on the body. Many of the chemicals that make up natural flavors fall under a category called “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS. An estimated 3,000 chemical food additives are in this category, yet this does not mean that these chemicals have been widely studied and approved by the FDA. Food companies do not need to disclose the ingredients of a natural flavor if all of the ingredients, which can be up to 100 in one flavor, fall into the GRAS category.
Even the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, has concluded that the “FDA’s oversight process does not help ensure the safety of all new GRAS determinations” and that the “FDA is not systematically ensuring the continued safety of current GRAS substances.”
There seem to be about 1,000 chemicals in the GRAS category that have not been researched or approved by the FDA or anyone else. Some are obviously artificial flavors and not natural flavors. Artificial flavors are created in a lab instead of being derived from a natural substance, yet what was fascinating to my boys was that the chemical structures of a natural strawberry flavor and an artificial strawberry flavor may be exactly the same, just achieved by different means. This suggests that a natural flavor may not be chemically any healthier than an artificial flavor. Organic foods cannot have artificial preservatives or synthetic solvents, so generally they are a safer bet.
I prefer that my children avoid these unstudied natural flavors, but I also do not want them to be afraid of enjoying a glass of orange juice. My message to them is that a majority of what we eat should continue to be whole foods that are free of any natural or artificial flavors or additives. Not a revolutionary idea, but just one more reminder of why our grocery cart has more arugula, artichokes and apples than those naturally flavored ice cream sandwiches. Sorry, boys. Back to the produce aisle we go.
First published in The Washington Post on July 27, 2017.