“Natural Flavors” In Foods Not So Natural After All

Fri, Feb 10, 2012

Food Additives, Natural Weight Loss

natural flavors imageOne afternoon at the hospital where I work as a dietitian, a nurse approached me desperate for me to talk to a specific patient about her diet. The patient had just gotten out of surgery for something relatively simple and I usually don’t talk to the “in and out” type of surgery patients, focusing my energies on those who have an actual nutritional need. But, I went to the patient’s room anyway, per the RNs request.

This patient proceeded to tell me that she was unable to tolerate any food that contained the ingredient “natural flavors”. According to the patient, this ingredient would cause a severe migraine and she would start vomiting. I’ll be honest, in terms of potentially “dangerous” ingredients in food, “natural flavors” never crossed my mind as being that big of a concern. This was the first patient I had come across that had even mentioned the term “natural flavors”.

As I was assisting in the preparation of a “natural flavor”- free meal for the patient, I was surprised to see how many foods included “natural flavors” or “artificial flavors” as part of the ingredients. Out of the 10-15 tea varieties we offer at the hospital, over half of them contained “natural flavors”.

The frozen chicken breasts and meatballs were out of the question. Even some of the pre-chopped, frozen vegetables contained “natural flavors”. For an ingredient that I had never really thought about, it really was in a lot of the food I was consuming!

In the end, I was able to get the patient a few things from our kitchen (we had to carefully read the ingredient list of all the products we put on her tray) and she was able to leave the hospital as scheduled without difficulty. But, I was curious as to what “natural flavors” actually meant and why it caused such a severe reaction in her.

Both of these ingredients are food additives that give processed foods their taste. The processing of foods – packaging, canning, drying, freezing – causes a lot of the flavor to be destroyed, therefore flavors must be added back to the food to make it palatable. There is a whole industry of “flavorists” who have been creating these flavors since the mid-nineteenth century to help food taste good. Many of these flavors and their ingredients are kept under lock and key, therefore it is difficult to identify exactly what ingredients are causing health problems.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require food companies to disclose the exact content of these additives as long as they are considered GRAS (“generally recognized as safe”), so really there is no way of knowing what chemicals you might be consuming. Clearly, based on the experience of my patient, “generally” safe does not mean “always safe”.

Natural flavors must be completely derived from natural or “organic” sources such as plants or animals.  Generally, food scientists use some type of chemical solvent to extract these “flavors” from fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, meat, etc. Artificial flavors on the other hand are combinations of chemicals that are produced in a lab and do not have any “natural” source. Anyone who knows anything about chemistry, knows that chemical compounds are chemical compounds whether they come from nature or are man made, poison is poison regardless if it is made in a lab or found in nature.

Benzaldehyde, a commonly used flavor, when it’s derived from natural sources (peach pits) contains traces of cyanide ( a deadly poison) but when it’s created in the lab there is no cyanide in it. Which would you rather have? The differentiation of “artificial” and “natural” can sometimes be completely arbitrary and “natural” doesn’t automatically mean healthier or safe.

A few food additives to watch out for that have been shown to cause cancer in some studies: saccharin, red dye 40, mono and di-glycerides, caramel coloring, and butyric acid. Many others can cause gastrointestinal disturbances such as: bromates, benzyl acetate, and borneol.

The number of potential side effects of these additives is extensive from headaches to neurological disturbances even heart attacks and strokes. There are over 3000 additives in our food and countless possible consequences of consuming these additives, therefore it would be next to impossible to identify or research them all. It is important to understand these chemicals exist in our food, many have not been properly tested, and the definition of GRAS by the FDA just doesn’t seem to be cutting it for many consumers who have varying degrees of sensitivities.

So what can you do to reduce your exposure to some of these dangerous chemicals?

The answer is very simple, EAT REAL FOOD.

Real food doesn’t have an ingredients list, therefore it cannot contain added flavors. Buy locally grown, organic produce and prepare it yourself.  If you are going to buy some processed foods, read labels carefully. A good rule of thumb is that if there are more than three ingredients in a food put it back. If you can’t pronounce any of the ingredients, put it back. Reduce the toxic load on your body by choosing quality food.

If you are dealing with headaches, gastrointestinal issues, or other health problems try to eliminate all processed foods and see if your symptoms improve, if they do add back one food at a time to see if you have a reaction. Most importantly, do the best you can, and enjoy healthy, real food.

By Ana Johnson. For more information about real food, gluten-free diets, weight loss, and anything nutrition related visit Ana at .


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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Robin Little Says:

    I was very excited to read about someone else besides myself who gets that reaction from ‘natural flavors’ in food! (Not that I’m happy to hear someone else is in pain, mind you.) I have been having these reactions for a long time now. I finally found out that I have a GABA/glutamate imbalance and I take L-theanine to block excess glutamate. (Many of the ‘natural flavors are really just denatured foods and the process frees the glutamate in the food.) Excess glutamate is an exitotoxin.
    I also am working to correct my methylation cycle and fix some deficiencies I have due to low stomach acid and pyroluria.
    I do much better now but still occasionally get a migraine. They last three days, with a two to three day ‘hang-over’ period. It feels like my head has been run over by a truck and mashed.
    I hate what is being done to our food supply.

  2. Tom Corson-Knowles Says:

    Hey Robin, thanks for your comment and sharing your story! I hope you’re feeling better now 🙂 If enough people like us know about these issues with our food supply we can change it!

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  1. Coffee Creamer | Whole Life Diets…. Says:

    […] for safety). If you want to read more about natural flavors check out an article I wrote about it here. Anyway, I think I am a convert to the new Natural Bliss Coffee Mate. I know it’s not making […]

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