Have you ever read the ingredient lists on packaged foods and wondered, “What on earth are ‘natural’ flavors?” The term is incredibly vague! So, don your chemistry caps, grab a cup of tea and get ready to explore!
Where do natural flavors come from? Are natural flavors really natural?
The world of flavorings is complex, and to extract natural flavors (or create artificial ones), a working knowledge of chemistry is needed. To get started, let me throw this shocker out there: Even “natural flavors” involve chemicals! But don’t judge yet: just because we call something a “chemical”, it doesn’t mean that that chemical is synthetic. The natural world is, of course, composed of chemicals!
Plants contain thousands of chemicals, many of which are responsible for their unique flavors and fragrances. Simply put, chemists who create natural flavors are aware of which chemicals are responsible for the desired flavor and they extract that component, resulting in a safe concentrated extract that can be added to foods to enhance flavor. If you are interested in reading more about how tea gets its flavor - both the leaves and blends read our Tea Primer post here.
How are natural flavors made?
To get such flavoring, the molecule is isolated using methods such as fermentation, heating, solvent extraction, etc., just like how you already knowing heating garlic results in a strong but different flavor. Some naturally occurring chemicals can actually break down the compounds responsible for flavoring, so great care is used to ensure that the extracts are compatible.
Terms such as limonene and 6-gingerol may sound scary but they are actually naturally occurring molecules found in plants (or animals) and play a role in what and how you taste. Limonene is the chemical found in the peels of citrus, while 6-gingerol is simply found in fresh ginger (with an obvious name). Others sound more worrisome, for example, “2,6- dimethyl-pyrazine” looks like something you wouldn’t want to ingest - but it is perfectly common substance that occurs when coffee beans are roasted and results in the delicious fragrance and roasted goodness associated with the beverage.
Chemicals in daily life
One common misunderstanding that comes up in news, magazines and online is as assumption that long-scientific names are bad and scary. As I mentioned, the world is chemicals. For example, a common 100% organic apple growing in your very own backyard will contain amongst other things:
Yes, formaldehyde is a naturally occurring substance which is a “necessary component for the metabolism of organisms”…humans included (BASF, 2019). And yes it is also used in different concentrations in industry as everyone who has smelled the inside of new car will know. So, in conclusion, every thing on Earth is a ‘chemical’ and for millions of them, our wonderful scientists have studied and named them, that’s all! Whether they are good or bad for you has little to do with length or difficulty to spell!
What does the FDA consider natural flavors?
To be considered a natural flavor, the FDA regulations state that the original substance must be natural.
In the US, 'natural flavor' is defined by the Code of Federal Regulations, 21 CFR 101.22 as "the essential oil, oleoresin, essence, or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, of any product of roasting, heating, or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit juice, vegetable, or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bud, bark, root, leaf, or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products or fermentation products thereof whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutrition". (Frey and Rouseff, 2005).
So don’t worry when you hear about ‘extracts’, think about what the extract is and whether that is an addition you are happy with. Some companies use organic natural flavors, and these must meet the USDA National Organic Program requirements:
“The material originates from an organism having a genome unaltered by modern biotechnology, produced and processed without the use of synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, or irradiation, and using farmlands in sustainable ways” (Frey and Rouseff, 2005).
For example, citrus natural flavors come from oils of citrus fruits that result as a by-product of the juice industry. Other flavors are created by compounding: extracting multiple components and combining them like a recipe. In comparison, an artificial flavor would be entirely man-made and produced in a lab.
Natural flavors are one of the most common ingredients found in packaged foods, along with salt, sugar and water. Natural flavors only enhance the flavor. They don’t contribute to the nutritional value.
Natural Flavors at MatchaAlternatives.com
So what about the flavors found in our blended teas at MatchaAlternatives.com? We use only natural flavor, never artificial, and anything labeled as organic is of course organic-compliant. Our flavors are in a carrier base of ethyl alcohol and then added to the teas via evaporation (which eliminates the alcohol). The result? A tea that is unaffected by this addition except in its deliciousness!
We should note, that given natural flavors can come from any naturally edible plant, fruit etc. this includes foods that people may have allergies against. So if there is a blend we sell with almond flavor, this is not artificial but actually is an extract of almond. Our teas are blended and packed in a space that also handles nuts, spices and other food stuffs. Any tea drinkers with allergies, please be careful and take care when ordering.
A Note From The Herbalist...
Let me just say that I absolutely LOVE making tea blends! The art and science of combining medicinal herbs to create the desired action and flavor is exhilarating. But sometimes, getting that flavor just right can be tough, especially since many herbs with the properties I am looking for are often bitter or unpleasant tasting. After some trial-and-error, I found that simply adding dried fruits and berries (and even some spices) failed to provide the flavors I was looking for. The tea looked like a work of art but the taste was lacking. It was then that I understood the logic behind using natural flavors and extracts. And while I try to use whole foods as often as possible, I am not concerned about using natural flavors to help bring out that oh-so-delicious burst of flavor.
Other blog posts you may find useful:
This blog post is part of the MA Blog's Tea Science series, read the rest here
To learn more about Matcha Alternatives' teas, check out my Spotlight series, where I introduce all our teas and tisanes.
Try some of our most popular blends and bundles:
- Relaxing Floral Quintet (5 Petalicious Teas Bundle) just $29 incl shipping for five 1oz bags of tea, or ~10-14 cups each).
- Chai Ginger Quartet (4 Gingery Teas Bundle) just $22.50 incl shipping for four 1oz bags of tea, or ~10-14 cups each).
- Fruitilicious Six (6 Fruity Rooibos & Green Teas Bundle) just $32 incl shipping for six 1oz bags of tea, or ~10-14 cups each).
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A final note...
And of course... All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. The information here is for educational use only.
Natural Flavors in Tea References and Further Reading
https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/natural-flavors (Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE on December 16, 2016)
https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/bk-2005-0908.ch001 (Frey and Rouseff; Natural Flavors and Fragrances, ACS Symposium Series; American Chemical Society: Washington, DC, 2005)
https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/bk-1995-0610.ch001 (Ho et al.; Flavor Technology, ACS Symposium Series; American Chemical Society: Washington, DC, 1997)
https://vanillaqueen.com/vanilla-from-mexico-central-american-and-the-caribbean/ (Patricia Rain, What’s the difference between imitation and pure vanilla? on March 7, 2016. Posted in FAQs, Vanilla Facts)
https://www.basf.com/global/en/media/magazine/archive/issue-6/the-chemistry-of-apples.html (The chemistry of apples, copyright BASF SE 2019, accessed 4th December 2019)