According to the FDA, there are over 100 different compounds that can be legally classified as "natural flavoring" on food labels, and food companies are not obligated to let you know which of those they have used in their products. The difference between natural and artificial flavors is that one is produced from a naturally occurring source and the other from a man-made chemical created in a lab. With that being said, the chemical composition of these two flavor descriptions is incredibly similar regardless of their original source. Some artificial flavors actually have LESS chemicals in them than natural flavors.
Here are a few examples of "natural flavors":
Amyl acetate: This compound can be distilled from bananas in order to provide banana-like flavor in baked goods.
Citral: Also known as geranial, citral is extracted from lemongrass, lemon, orange and pimento. It is used in citrus-flavored beverages and sweets.
Benzaldehyde: This chemical is extracted from almonds, cinnamon oil and other ingredients. It is frequently used to give foods an almond flavor and aroma.
Castoreum: A surprising and unsettling source, this slightly sweet substance is found in the anal secretions of beavers. It is sometimes used as a substitute for vanilla.
Linden ether: Honey flavor derived from plant matter
Massoia lactone: Coconut flavor derived from processed coconut
Acetoin: Butter flavor derived from a chemical compound found in butter. Commonly added to foods (especially popular in microwaved popcorn), cigarettes and e-cigarettes to provide a "caramel" or "butter flavor". Although it was deemed "Generally Recognized as Safe" for consumption by the FDA, it is not safe for inhalation, due to the fact that in studies it is directly related to increased risk of respiratory disease.
Even though some of these flavors are derived from natural sources, they are highly processed and mixed with many chemical additives before they become the final product that is added to the foods you see at the grocery store.
The flavors listed above are only the tip of the iceberg. Your best bet is to avoid products that contain natural or articial flavoring completely. Knowledge is power, and we have the ability to make safer and healthier choices for ourselves and our families through the products that we buy and cook with.
Making this adjustment may not be easy for you, especially if processed foods are something that you commonly purchase. My advice is to make small changes, plan your grocery list ahead of time, do your research and you will be amazed at what a big difference it makes. Over time, it will become easier and easier to avoid these types of products. If you think you need some assistance making this change, I am here to help! Schedule a consultation or a grocery store tour today and take the first step towards saying goodbye to toxic ingredients in your household!