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What Are Natural Flavors? Are They Vegan?

Treehugger (May 5, 2022)

Originally published here.

Natural flavors are food additives designed to make processed foods taste irresistible. These flavors can come from vegan-friendly sources, but they can also be derived from animal products. This leaves many plant-based eaters to wonder: Are my food’s natural flavors vegan?

The answer is not cut and dry, but a careful reading of the ingredient label offers some guidance. Here, we take a deep dive into the chemistry and regulation behind these cravings-inducing flavors to help ensure your next meal is cruelty-free.

What Are Natural Flavors?

Natural flavors are food additives made from upwards of 100 different chemicals. They restore flavor lost during pasteurization and processing, enhance smells, keep foods tasting fresh months after purchase, and deliver flavor in short, concentrated bursts that make our brains beg for the next bite. 

Chemically speaking, natural flavors applies to any number of molecular compounds that come from natural sources (as in, not synthesized in a laboratory). Foods become natural flavors after being heated or fermented in a process called enzymolysis. Once the food has been condensed into its essential flavor molecules, its chemical structures are indistinguishable from artificial flavors.

The most significant difference between natural and artificial flavors? Price. Consumers are generally willing to pay more for the perception that the flavors in their processed foods come from natural rather than synthetic sources—even though they are essentially identical.

According to the FDA, one of the U.S. agencies overseeing food additivesnatural flavors can be isolated from vegan foods, including spices, fruits, vegetables, yeast, and other plants. Likewise, animal-derived meat, seafood, eggs, poultry, and dairy can also serve as the base for natural flavors. 

Did You Know?

If you’ve ever eaten processed food, you’ve likely ingested natural flavors. In fact, the Environmental Working Group lists natural flavor as the fourth most common ingredient in their Food Scores, with only salt, water, and sugar ranking higher.

When Natural Flavors Are Vegan 

For many plant-based eaters, common sense can help determine a natural flavor’s vegan status, even when the label is less than helpful. Consider the flavor profile of the food—Skittles, for example (if you’re a vegan who eats sugar).

Citrus and other candy natural flavors are likely derived from actual fruits and plants, making them vegan-friendly. Even the creamy variety of Skittles likely comes from a non-dairy derivative. The same holds true for Ritz Crackers—their classic buttery flavor comes from artificial sources.

If it’s unlikely that a non-vegan ingredient might appear in that food, most “practical and possible” vegans feel comfortable eating these natural flavors.

When Natural Flavors Are Not Vegan

Unlike milk, eggs, fish, and shellfish, meat products are not considered allergens that require labeling. For this reason, some strict vegans only eat natural flavors in foods designated as vegan. Some skip natural flavors altogether due to the confusion.

Without contacting the manufacturer, it’s nearly impossible to know if the natural flavors in your food are vegan. At least on meat and poultry labels, the USDA, the other agency governing food safety in the U.S., requires that both animal and vegetable proteins be identified by source. This may prove a valuable tip to vegans looking for ramen noodles, bullion, or boxed rice.

Wildly, there’s no guarantee that natural beef flavor, for example, has any actual beef in it. Many meaty-tasting natural flavors come from hydrolyzed proteins often made from plants. However, hydrolyzed proteins can also be derived from dairy, so vegans should read labels carefully to avoid any confusion.

What’s more, some natural flavors are not so straightforward in announcing their vegan status. Take castoreum—the extract of a secretion from the castor sacs of beavers. This warm, slightly sweet natural flavor historically stood in for vanilla bean. Today, a synthetic vanilla molecule called vanillin is likely the plant-based flavor in your Ben & Jerry’s vegan ice cream. 

Do Natural Flavors Contain Petroleum Products?

Environmental vegans also investigate whether their foods contain products made from unsustainable fossil fuels. Anywhere from 10-20% of natural flavors are made up of emulsifiers, solvents, and preservatives known as incidental additives. While solvents can be plant-based, such as ethanol, manufacturers often use unsustainable petroleum-derived solvents like propylene glycol.

Organic natural flavors may be only flavors almost guaranteed not to contain petrochemicals. To meet the organic standard, these flavors must have at least 95% organic ingredients and cannot contain artificial preservatives, solvents, or carriers.

Did You Know?

Almost all artificial flavors in processed foods were created by an exclusive group of around 500 food flavor scientists known as flavorists. After a seven-year post-graduate apprenticeship, these literal tastemakers can become certified members of the Society of Flavor Chemists.

Animal Testing in Natural Flavors

Ethical vegans also abstain from products tested on animals. Per the regulations of the FDA, most foods are tested on animals before they can be added to the list of foods generally recognized as safe.

This may be reason enough for some ardent vegans to shun natural and artificial flavors altogether. For others, regulatory animal testing is seen as an acceptable (or at least unavoidable at this time) moral hazard of contemporary life.Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is natural chicken flavor vegan? The answer is probably not. Natural flavors on poultry and meat labels by law must disclose their protein source. If “chicken” appears in the flavor, there’s at least a chance that it was derived from an animal product.
  • Are organic natural flavors vegan? Not necessarily—they may still have been derived from animal products. What organic natural flavors are less likely to contain is petrochemicals.
  • Which natural flavor comes from beaver glands? A natural flavor of antiquity, castoreum is found in the anal secretions of beavers, which is very rarely used to substitute vanilla and enhance strawberry and raspberry flavors.
  • Can natural flavors contain meat? Yes, they can because natural flavors are derived from biological sources, including meat.