The Debate Over What "Natural Flavors" Means Continues

Food companies often get into trouble when labeling a product as containing "natural flavors."

Why do companies say products are natural when they really aren't? Are these food brands really out to trick the consumer? Maybe, but most of the reasoning for this phenomenon could be attributable to the confusing lack of definition of "natural flavors." Food trade group the Organic and Natural Health Association announced an independent certification program in 2015 to help define the term officially, according to The Guardian.

Meanwhile, a biotech company in England is creating technically natural flavors, like grapefruit, from other sources, like oranges, according to Popular Science. Because oranges are easier to find than grapefruits, it's a cheaper and more reliable route to grapefruit flavor.

In order to manufacture the grapefruit essence, scientists isolate a chemical in oranges, valencene, and combine it with an enzyme, creating nootkatone, a.k.a. grapefruit flavoring. Ginko Bioworks in Boston uses similar techniques to make yeast taste like vanilla.

How are these not considered artificial flavors? Popular Science reports that artificial flavors are extracted from chemicals while natural flavors come from "biological material," such as plants, spices and meat. However, that's not to say biological materials can be easily qualified as natural. Numerous lawsuits have been filed over the years over products' usages of "natural" on labels.

In the case of Crisco Cooking Oils, the product was ordered to shed its "all-natural" label after it was ruled that the GMO ingredients made the oil unnatural. General Mills suffered a similar fate and removed "100 percent natural" from its Nature Valley granola bar products, which also contained GMOs. The same goes for Naked Juice, Kashi products, Bear Naked granola, Puffins cereal and Popchips. A list of active cases can be found here.