If I asked you to choose between a product that has 'natural' flavorings and one that has 'artificial' flavorings, most of us would choose the 'natural' flavoring option. Rightfully so, it does sound healthier. But is it??
What you and I would consider a natural product, one that been minimally processed, possibly organic, may not be what the food manufacturer considers natural. Unlike the term organic which has very specific growing and labeling laws, the term natural does not. No guidelines. No exclusions. It's just a loose term. Understandably, natural can be tricky as simply mashing potatoes will mechanically change the structure of the carbohydrates.
Other countries, such as Canada, note that natural foods cannot significantly alter food from it's original form. Their definition goes on to specify the food cannot even have a vitamin or mineral added. Nor can they have parts of the food extracted, except for water. Think of how many foods would not meet these specifications here in the United States!
The FDA does have guidelines for natural flavoring. (whoop, whoop). Trust me, it's long winded...my guess is to plug in as many loopholes as possible. In essence, it states that a natural flavor is a substance derived from plant or animal matter. This can be directly from the matter or after cooking, heating, freezing, roasting, fermenting, etc. The natural flavor does not have to come from the matter it will be used for flavoring...so a flavor compound (yes, a chemical really) derived from chicken (although it may not taste like chicken) can be used to flavor a can of spaghetti-o's.
The end product is always a man-made compound. There are just certain flavors in nature that cannot be recreated exactly or inexpensively. To approximate the actual flavor of a food, food chemists may blend dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of different chemicals in a lab. For example, almonds get their flavor from naturally occurring benzaldehyde compound. Yet, it's a heck of a lot cheaper to synthesize this in a lab compared to extracting it from almonds.
Seems like a lot of work, right?? The scary part is that manufacturers take the extra steps to meet the “natural flavoring” definition because consumers believe these products are healthier and will pay more for them. You may never know if one or fifty chemicals were used in a product. Scary.
What are the health effects of these commonly added compounds? Good luck finding the research. I found very very little. That's discerning in itself.
So, what can you do?
1. Don’t fall for the "natural" hype. Natural chips are not necessarily healthier than regular chips.
2. If you see a product you enjoy with 'natural flavorings' on the label, contact the company to specify the compounds used.
3. Vote with your wallet. Choose whole, plant-based foods as often as possible.
If you have any questions about this or any other nutrition topic, e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org