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    February 05, 2024 5 min read

    Seeking Transparency on "Natural Flavors”



    “Natural flavors” are the fourth most common food ingredient after salt, water and sugar. Unlike these ingredients, what lies behind the term is cloaked in a tangle of regulations and industrial secrets.


    The ever present food label brings to mind wholesome images of sunny orchards and dewy produce straight from the farm. But peel back the layers and you'll find something less pastoral.


    Despite the farm-fresh associations, most commercially produced natural flavors rely on synthetic solvents, preservatives, and other additives. The flavor industry operates in a regulatory regime that allows synthetic ingredients to hide behind a generic "natural flavor" label without further scrutiny.


    This lack of transparency around one of the most widely used food ingredients should concern any conscientious consumer. Customers deserve to know what goes into their food and the lack of information can potentially have harmful effects on your health.


    Incidentally…Additives in Natural Flavors


    preservative power in culture plate



    Ingredients used in natural flavors that are not intended for flavor purposes are allowed to be labeled as "natural flavor" without any further declaration - either on the ingredient list or elsewhere on the label. These are known as incidental additives. In fact, the typical natural flavor is 80% - 90% incidental additives. These additives can be grouped into several categories:


    Processing aids - products added to a food or beverage to improve it and then removed from the finished product. An example is a clarifying agent.
    Carriers - help to deliver the flavor into their desired application (e.g. mixing a beverage flavor with water)
    Solvents - substances used to extract or dissolve another substance 
    Emulsifiers - substances which allow uniform dispersion in a food or beverage
    Preservatives - natural or synthetic substances which slow or prevent the growth of bacteria


    Flavor components of natural flavor must be derived naturally, but there is no such requirement for incidental additives. Many synthetic additives are allowed and used in natural flavor.


    Common synthetic additives like propylene glycol and BHT preservatives have been linked to allergic reactions, endocrine disruption, and other concerns.


    Vegans and Natural Flavor


    While references to “beaver butt” making the rounds on TikTok can be alarmist, many animal byproducts are allowed under the umbrella of “natural flavors”. A food or beverage manufacturer would not be able to claim a product is vegan or vegetarian friendly without sign-off from the flavor manufacturer, more often than not, labels remain ambiguous and mum on their status. 


    Allergies and Natural Flavor


     major allergen illustration


    Labeling laws require the disclosure of the “Big 9” food allergens -milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybean and sesame -the same is not true for other allergens. There is no requirement for flavor manufacturers to declare these other-than-major allergens when they appear in natural flavors. People with sensitivity to gluten, fructose, corn and other ubiquitous food ingredients are left in the dark.





    Those with sensitivity to histamines - such as people followinga low FODMAP diet to treat irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease - are also in for a hard time. The creation of natural flavor often requires enzymatic reactions to recreate the chemical reactions in artificial flavor manufacturing. With advances in biotechnology flavorists have increasingly turned to fermentation and lab culturing for these enzymes.Histamines are often created as a byproduct of natural flavor manufacturing.


    Manufacturers in the Dark



    Customers asking a food or drink manufacturer about ingredients in their natural flavors are often met with silence or a long runaround of communication that does not answer their question.


    In many ways, these manufacturers are in an impossible position. They are beholden to a flavor house that is only required to disclose major allergens and attest that the flavors are food safe and derived from natural sources. A manufacturer may have no other info to offer a consumer than that. Any appeal to a flavor house for further information is generally met with a boilerplate “we do not divulge proprietary information about our manufacturing process”.


    In fact, the FDA is barred from publishing quantitative information about a flavor in the course of investigating the validity of a flavor house’s natural flavor claim.


    Several lawsuits, including a lawsuit brought against La Croix for their “all natural” claims, have bumped up against this culture of non-disclosure. In that lawsuit, the judge denied entreaties by Givaudan, La Croix’s flavor house, to keep their involvement as a supplier a secret.


    Organic Flavors…A Good Start



    In 2019, changes to organic regulations began requiring organic foods to contain organic flavor.Organic flavor regulations close some loopholes around synthetic additives in a new class of flavors - “organic flavors” - eliminating the use of GMOs and petroleum derived ingredients among other ingredients.  But even with organic flavors major gaps remain, and companies still don’t have to fully disclose additives used in proprietary flavor formulas. There is a long way to go to true transparency.


    The Wehl Difference


    bay leaf in copper alembic still


    Because they are a product of a flavor industry born in the lab, flavor drops with natural flavor start with a cabinet full of chemical constituents. At Wehl we do things a differently. Whole ingredients come in the door, carefully selected for freshness and flavor. We work to preserve the context and character of the plants - flavor, benefit and all.


    While most flavor drops use oil, alcohol or propylene glycol as a solvent, our flavors are water based. That means we don’t need a surfactant to bind the flavor to water - Wehl Plant Drops mix with no effort. 


    Most flavors need preservatives. Our botanically based formulations naturally resist spoilage. 


    How do we skip sugar and sweeteners while leaving your taste buds satisfied? Our careful steam distillation means we capture the purest flavor possible, leaving behind any tannins, bitter flavor or off tastes (no hard feelings tea).


    Take Charge of Your Flavor


    So where does this leave the mindful eater? Rather than settling for natural flavor knockoffs, consumers can vote for the real deal with their dollars. Support companies like Wehl who believe in listing all flavors and sources openly and honestly. Ask tough questions about your food, challenge regulatory runarounds, and don’t accept the business-as-usual secrecy that treats eaters like passive consumers rather than active and intelligent stakeholders.


    At Wehl, we make our ingredients and process as simple and transparent as possible so you can make informed choices about what you drink.


    Additional Reading


    If you want to learn more, we suggest you check out these excellent resources:


    The Environmental Working Group - Artificial Flavor vs. Natural Flavor

    The New York Times - Are Natural Flavors Really Natural?

    What’s Inside Natural Flavor?

    Take Another Step


    Looking to do something else to make a difference? 


    Check out this petition by allergy sufferers to increase transparency in flavoring.