Rate Your Plate Series: Natural vs. Artificial Flavors

If you cook food at home, odds are you have a spice rack with 10, 20 or maybe even 50 different herbs and spices. I know I do.

But processed food doesn’t rely just on those simple ingredients for its flavor. “Natural flavor” is the fourth most common ingredient listed in EWG’s Food Scores, which rates more than 80,000 foods on their degree of nutrition, ingredient concerns and processing concerns.

In other words, “natural flavor” finds its way into more than a fifth of that roster of 80,000 foods, with only salt, water and sugar mentioned more frequently on food labels.

But what is “natural flavor” exactly? Are natural flavors really better than artificial flavors? The simple fact that McDonald’s says its “natural beef flavor” is derived from wheat and milk should make you wonder.

I have always felt partial to natural flavors because I tend to prefer the outdoors, nature and things and people who are not artificial. But I have never really had any solid information to back up my instincts. After digging into some food chemistry and food engineering tomes about natural and artificial flavors, I found the results very surprising.

The bottom line: natural and artificial flavors really aren’t that different. And those “natural flavors” can actually contain synthetic chemicals! You’re right to be skeptical of the word “natural” – it’s often thrown around loosely. I avoid both “synthetic” and “natural” flavors when I can, by minimizing my consumption of processed foods...

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