Confusion reigns across the internet and blogosphere about natural flavors. Really, it is quite amazing what some people will do to excite their followers by amplifying “fake news” and exploiting fear. We get phone calls every day from customers who are suddenly scared that they are ingesting something terrible if they eat or drink a product that contains natural flavors.
In 2013, I wrote what I think is a pretty comprehensive article about natural flavors on our Teeccino blog. It’s a deep read, but worth it if you really want to understand the truth about natural flavors.
Recently though, I realized I could give a couple more good examples of how natural flavors are derived and why they’re safe to consume. I was sipping on a Kombucha beverage that tasted like cherries even though there was no cherry juice or natural cherry flavor on the label. It just so happened that I know exactly how this Kombucha company was hiding its natural cherry flavor in its ingredient list. I thought, this has gone too far. Now natural food companies are too afraid to admit they’re using natural flavors to make their products delicious!
So if some blogger or “medical medium” has led you to believe that natural flavors are full of bad things, please give me a moment of your time to read some real facts about these natural flavor compounds and why we love them to enhance our food and beverages!
Why does this Kombucha taste like cherries when there are no cherries in it?
That Kombucha bottle didn’t say it was going to be cherry flavored so I was surprised when it tasted like a cherry soda. On closer inspection of the ingredient list, it said it contained “almond extract.” Right, so why didn’t it taste like almonds like any label-reading person would expect?
Here why: Plants share organic compounds across species even though the end result is that a plant’s particular mix of flavor compounds will make almonds taste like almonds and cherries taste like cherries. In this case, both almonds and cherries share an aromatic adelhyde called benzaldhyde.
Normally benzaldehyde tastes like almonds, but I happen to know a man whose career has been devoted to cultivating plants for flavor extraction. He discovered a variety of almonds that have a benzaldehyde that tastes like cherries. So that is how this bottle of kombucha came to taste like cherries from so-called “almond extract”!
The truth is, the kombucha company should have said in its ingredient list, “natural cherry flavor”, not almond extract. Almond extract would taste like almonds because extracts are made from the whole plant or in this case, the whole almond. Natural flavors like benzaldehyde are steam distilled to isolate just the single flavor compound, not the whole extracted plant.
It’s an important difference. For instance, in this case, if the kombucha had contained almond extract, a person who is allergic to almonds shouldn’t drink it because it would contain the proteins that trigger the nut allergen response in sensitive people. It would have had to have an allergen statement on the bottle right underneath the ingredient list, but there was none. The kombucha company bent all the FDA labeling regulations and thought they could get away with it because benzaldehyde doesn’t contain protein or any other parts of the almond and thus it is safe for consumption by anyone with nut allergies.
Coffee flavor versus coffee extract
If you eat an ice cream or yogurt that lists coffee extract on its ingredient list, that product contains coffee pure and simple. It will also contain caffeine and everything else in coffee. An extract simply concentrates the whole plant.
However, if you drink one of our Teeccino flavors that contains natural coffee flavor, you are not getting any caffeine, acids or the whole coffee bean extract in your cup. Teeccino’s natural coffee flavor is a combination of flavors that are extracted using steam distillation to isolate single compounds that are then combined to create the flavor of coffee.
I’ve done my best to explain to our customers that coffee shares flavor compounds in common with other plants. I’ve given the example of how coffee and garlic share a flavor compound in common just like cherries and almonds do.
Many of the people who drink Teeccino don’t want any coffee in their Teeccino and we understand that. Neither do we! However, the flavor compounds that go into our coffee flavor may be extracted from a variety of plants like chicory, garlic and yes, sometimes coffee beans.
I’m committed to erring on the side of full disclosure and honesty. I can’t guarantee that the flavor company I buy natural coffee flavor from didn’t extract one of the flavor compounds from coffee beans. However, even if they did, you’re not getting coffee in your cup. Flavor compounds do not equal the plant they are derived from. They are single “phytochemicals” (phyto means plant) produced by plants but isolated from the whole plant.
Essential oils are a source for many natural flavors
Here’s an example of a natural flavor that can be made from an essential oil or from a flavor compound within that oil. Pure cinnamon bark oil is extracted using steam distillation. I’ve used it in many teas to spike the cinnamon flavor notes from the cinnamon bark in the tea. You just can’t get enough cinnamon flavor from the bark alone if you’re brewing with a tea bag. Now if you were simmering that bark for 20 minutes, then you’d get plenty of flavor. Not too many people are willing to take the time to do that!
I’ve also made teas using a flavor compound called cinnamic aldehyde, or cinnamaldehyde, which makes up about 90% of cinnamon bark oil. However, if you remove that 10% of other flavor molecules in the oil, you get this hot, sweet flavor that is really tasty. Cinnamic aldehyde would be correctly labeled as a natural flavor. However, just recently one of the teas I designed for another company that uses cinnamic aldehyde changed their ingredient list from natural cinnamon flavor to “cinnamon bark oil”. Once again, the company is afraid of consumer rejection for natural flavors. Are they wrong to call it cinnamon bark oil? Yes, because it isn’t the whole essential oil. It’s the main component but it’s been isolated and added to a flavor base. Thus it’s a natural flavor, not an essential oil.
Essential oils are typically too potent to add directly to a tea without a base that helps disperse it. If you put an essential oil directly onto the tea, it should be called an essential oil. But if it has been added to a base, it is a natural flavor.
By the way, cinnamic aldehyde is a potent antioxidant. It has many uses including keeping bugs away so it is also used to make organic insecticides. Plants develop essential oils to protect themselves and thus they can protect you too!
Organic Compliant natural flavors are safe and superior
In my blog post from 2013, I wrote about one way natural flavors can contain ingredients you may not want to consume. I must agree, you should watch out for natural flavors that aren’t controlled by the rules that govern organic products.
Back in the ‘90’s when I first made Teeccino, it was hard to find natural flavors that didn’t rely on a base of propylene glycol, which is derived from a petroleum-based raw material. I made sure that Teeccino never had any flavors that used it.
Once the National Organic Program came along, my job was made much easier. Anything not allowed in organic products is not allowed in flavors that are put into organic products either. All flavor manufacturers have to submit their full ingredient list to the organic certification organization in order to be approved for use. “Organic compliant” natural flavors are flavors that comply with all of the NOP regulations. Thus if you buy organic, you can completely trust the natural flavors to be clean and healthy!
Want more information on organic flavors? Read my article from 2013!
I do hope this helps you understand more about natural flavors . Over the years, I’ve done many taste tests and the truth is simple. Many foods and beverages need the spike of flavor that natural flavors give them in order to please our taste buds. If you have questions, please ask away. If I can’t answer them, I will get my favorite flavorist to give us the answer!