Science Technology

This Is What’s Really Inside Your Natural, Artificial And Organic Food Flavors

Fun fact for you guys: Natural food flavors can still have artificial ingredients inside them. Crazy, right?

food flavors

I mean, how much do we really understand what goes into flavors, anyway? All we see is whether they’re natural or artificial on the ingredient label. What we don’t realize is that a single “flavor” ingredient is actually more like ten or fifteen — all used to deliver and boost the product’s taste. The only reason we’re not seeing these on our ingredient labels is because the law doesn’t require it.

Even for me, a food scientist, that feels kind of shady. For those who are looking for that transparency, though, here’s what’s required of some of the most common flavor classifications you’ll see on food products.

What Compounds Are Approved?

When making a flavor, scientists will piece together a bunch of different aroma compounds to form a single, desired fragrance. Those compounds have to be approved by the USDA, who in turn relies on industry experts from the Flavors and Extracts Manufacturing Association to tell them what chemicals get the green light. There’s currently about 2,000 total ingredients on FEMA’s list, which is regarded as one of the most credible on the planet.

Natural Flavor

To be frank, how the food industry deals with the word “natural” can be kinda sketchy, since there’s no legal definition of what a “natural” food is. At least we have a definition for flavors, though.

According to the Code of Federal Regulations, any extract, oil, or other essence of a natural food, plant, or bacteria can be classified as a natural flavor. All of the different aroma compounds inside have to come from those. If any artificial flavors are used as well, the labeling has to change to “Natural and Artificial Flavors” in the ingredients list. So while LaCroix can throw “natural flavor” on their label, Hawaiian Punch has to mark that they have both.

Remember how I said that artificial stuff can still legally be in natural food flavors, though? The solvent the natural aromas are dissolved into, plus any stabilizers, emulsifiers, preservatives, or weighting agents, can be synthetic. So if you see “natural flavor” on the ingredient label, that may not be the same “natural” you’re expecting it to be.

Artificial Flavor

Photo: Mike Mozart // Flickr

If the flavors inside are 100% synthetic, you’ll see this on both the front and back of the food package. Jell-O’s artificially flavored vanilla pudding, for example, says “artificial flavor vanilla” on the front and “artificial flavor” on the back. The only time this changes is for something like Hawaiian Punch. That name doesn’t really evoke a specific fragrance, so they don’t have to label anything on the front. The back will still say “artificial flavor,” though, so at least you know whether its aroma components are natural or not.

With Other Natural Flavors

Photo: Mike Mozart // Flickr

When it comes to the front of a food label, stating the type of natural flavor becomes a bit trickier than what’s on the back. If an actual food ingredient, like vanilla beans, is providing the aroma, you can just say its name. Breyers gets to do that since their ice cream is just flavored using a natural vanilla, for example.

It’s uncommon, though, for the compounds in natural flavor to come from a single source. Often times, a single flavor will get its parts from ten or fifteen different natural sources, and has to be marked as such. This is the case with some varieties of Hint Water, so you’ll see “with other natural flavors” on the front of a bottle.

Organic And Organic-Compliant Flavors

Just like organic foods, the flavors that go into them also come with a host of requirements. Flavors do not have to be certified organic, however, and the industry tends to not make them. Your organic foods, as a result, tend to not have have certified organic aromas inside.

How does the industry get away with this, you ask? At a bare minimum, only 95% of the components of a food have to be certified organic to get the USDA Organic label. Flavors almost never exceed 5% of the formulation, so they can be organic-compliant instead and be fine.

Organic-compliant flavors, though, do come with a set of additional requirements. The components that provide aroma and color must be natural and cannot be altered in any way. Natural solvents that don’t use petroleum are the only ones allowed, and no GMOs or irradiation (a form of mild, benign radiation that can sterilize food) can be used in the product. Additional preservatives, emulsifiers, and weighing agents must also all be natural. Finally, no sewer sludge can be used to make these flavors, because apparently, that was a problem in the past. Yikes.

Hopefully, with all of the above information, you can be more conscious about the products you choose to purchase based on what goes into them not just from an ingredient standpoint, but in terms of flavor type as well.

Fast Food

Here’s Exactly What’s In McDonald’s ‘Healthier’ McNuggets


McNuggets just got much cleaner, supposedly. McDonald’s announced it will be serving an all new, healthier McNugget recipe nationwide.

Initial announcements didn’t include ingredient details, according to the Associated Press, they hadn’t announced that new recipe yet.

The new recipe calls has no artificial preservatives, and removed ingredients like safflower oil and citric acid.  McDonald’s said they also replaced them with “more familiar sounding’ ingredients, like pea starch, rice starch, powdered lemon juice.  

A McDonald’s representative revealed the full new ingredients list as follows, white boneless chicken, water, vegetable oil (canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil), enriched flour bleached wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), bleached wheat flour, yellow corn flour, vegetable starch (modified corn, wheat, rice, pea, corn), salt, leavening (baking soda, sodium aluminum phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, calcium lactate, monocalcium phosphate), spices, yeast extract, lemon juice solids, dextrose, natural flavors.

The current recipe crams 32 ingredients into each McNugget. The ingredients they officially said will not be included are sodium phosphates, which is used to keep the chicken moist, an artificial preservative called tert-Butylhyroquinone, and the a change to the oil used to fry the nuggets.

The company originally started testing the new recipe back in April at 140 restaurants.  No specific ingredient changes were announced at that time either. According to Crain’s, the McNugget’s new packaging and advertisements both in-store and on social media highlight the lack of artificial colors and flavors in the new recipe.

The company has been attempting to market itself as more healthy for years, and on Monday, they announced that their goal was to stop using chickens that have been raised with human antibiotics. Other efforts include removing high fructose corn syrup from the buns. Revamps to get rid of artificial ingredients are expected to effect about half the menu. In 2014, McDonald’s even hired former Mythbuster co-host Grant Imahara to investigate and answer customer concerns surrounding McDonald’s food.

All this to try and convince us that their food is healthy. Are you buying it?

Fast Food

Papa John’s To Drop Artificial Ingredients From Entire Pizza Menu

papa johns fb stock

Papa John’s is losing artificial flavors. Last year, the company promised that they would be switching to antibiotic-free chicken. Now, they’re shooting for something a little grander. Papa John’s will be the first national pizza chain to drop all artificial flavors and synthetic coloring from the entire menu, Business Wire reports.

This includes all of their pizza ingredients, toppings, sauces and desserts.

It seems the tagline “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza.” isn’t just for show. The company reportedly invests $100 million a year in cutting artificial ingredients.

We reached out to Papa Johns and the entire menu has already been rid of synthetic and artificial flavors.


Packaged Food

Hershey’s Chocolate Finally Drops Artificial Flavoring From Their Iconic Candy


Hershey’s has announced that their famous chocolate Kisses and bars will be getting much less complicated. The company says that it will be dropping artificial ingredients and will be using real vanilla in the two chocolate candies.

It was previously announced that Hershey’s Co. wanted to use simpler ingredients, AP reports.

The change in recipe has already begun for the candy company as the new batch of kisses and certain chocolate bars have already begun shipping. Stores will be updated with the new variants as soon as their shelves need restocking.

Packaging for the chocolate will feature a new “natural flavor” listing rather than vanillin, the artificial flavoring used in the original chocolates. Hershey’s has also cut Lactose and PGPR from its recipe.

Seems like loads of companies have begun taking steps towards more natural ingredients recently.

Packaged Food

FROOT LOOPS To Change Forever As Kellogg Announces All-Natural Direction


Kellogg Co’s going all natural. The company announced Tuesday that it plans to stop using artificial colors and flavors in its cereals and snacks sometime before 2018, Reuters reports.

All this year, fast food chains have been announcing similar goals with their ingredients. Now, the 109-year-old food company is the latest to make the change.

Competitor General Mills had also made a similar announcement about a month ago.

Thankfully, this isn’t a major change for Kellogg. About 75 percent of its cereals in North America are made without artificial colors and more than half of are made without artificial flavors. Those who enjoy the sugary saturated colors of fruit loops, however, will be sorely disappointed.

Like its Australian counterparts, expect the cereal to boast paler shades of color as natural coloring ingredients replace the artificial ones. It’s all in the name of health, right?


Packaged Food

General Mills Is Getting Rid Of All Artificial Colors From Their Cereals


General Mills has announced they’re getting rid of artificial ingredients. This means the company’s cereals will no longer feature all the bright colors at typically come with artificial flavors and colors.

No longer will the brand be associated with artificial dyes like Blue 1, Yellow 6 and Red 40. Among the cereals that will be affected with this change are Cocoa Puffs, Reese’s Puffs and Trix. Changes will be implemented by the end of this year.

According to General Mills, the cereal’s colors will now come from fruit and vegetable concentrates as well as spices.


General Mills released a product shot of Reese’s Puffs as they look now with a projected look as to how they’ll look once the artificial coloring is removed and natural colors are utilized.

The two look pretty much identical.

However, cereals with blue and greens in them like Trix will no longer feature the two colors. The difficulty in replacing the artificial blues with a natural alternative means that General Mills is dropping the color entirely. No blue means no green, either.

Expect to find the new, more natural cereals in grocery store shelves sometime at the end of this year.


Packaged Food

Kraft Has Plans To Remove The Artificial Colorings From Their Mac & Cheese


Orange and blue have become synonymous with the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese brand. The bright orange, derived from synthetic coloring, is now set to undergo some natural changes.

Beginning next year, Original Kraft Macaroni & Cheese will replace colors Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 with more natural ingredients. The brand said in a statement that they’ll be using paprika, annatto and turmeric in its Macaroni & Cheese to replicate that famous bright orange coloring.

The big change is set to take place in 2016 because Kraft will need the rest of the year to figure out a recipe that both keeps the color and doesn’t affect flavor.

Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, known as Tartrazine and Orange Yellow, are synthetic lemon dyes that are added to food for color. They’ve been known to cause asthma and hyperactivity in children.