According to the Environmental Working Group, natural flavors are the fourth most common food ingredient listed on food labels, coming after only salt, water, and sugar. Once you know a little more about them, you'll know why that could be a very bad thing.

First of all, the word "flavor" in an ingredient labeled natural flavor indicates that it was included primarily to add flavor to the product in question as opposed to nutritional value; so a "naturally flavored" orange product could rightly claim to be "made from real oranges" without having any of the nutritional value an orange would. Better to just eat the real orange!

Next, all the "natural" in natural flavor means is that some, potentially small, part of it comes from a plant or animal, as opposed to it being a chemical that is entirely man-made.

However, that doesn't mean that this natural flavor can't also contain artificial additives! One "natural flavor" can include as much as a hundred ingredients, which could be anything from solvents and emulsifiers to preservatives.

According to scientists, the effect of these loopholes is that there is not much difference between "natural" flavors and purely artificial ones. There's also nothing preventing a natural flavor from coming from a genetically modified crop, which many health experts are also wary of.

Since food manufacturers will want to use the cheapest possible source of any given flavor, there's also no guarantee that even the natural part of a natural flavor is derived from the product that a processed food is meant to resemble.

A "naturally-flavored" passionfruit product, for instance, is more likely to be flavored with violet, cherry, or pineapple than any real passionfruit—and that's if you're lucky!

A company is only required to disclose what a natural flavor is if it contains a common allergen, so there's probably no way of finding out exactly what you're getting.

Some of the more disgusting "natural" ingredients out there include carmine, derived from boiled beetles; castoreum, made from the anal secretions of beavers; cellulose, which can be extracted from wood pulp; isinglass, made from dried fish bladder; gelatin, made from boiled-down animal connective tissue; shellac, made from the sticky secretion of the Kerria lacca beetle; and L-Cysteine, which can be extracted from duck feathers or human hair.

Other "natural flavors," like carrageenan, a compound that comes from red seaweed, don't sound as egregious, but have been associated with inflammation, ulcers, and even malignancies. You should also be aware of foods that contain "natural contaminants," which could well be substances as disgusting as rodent hair and insect parts.

While you may not be surprised that these "natural flavors" are abundant in junk food, you may be more perturbed to learn that they are also present in many seemingly healthy processed foods.

Perhaps the most insidious element of the term "natural flavors" is that it suggests a food is healthy and wholesome when it could be anything but. Studies have found that people estimate that a food labeled natural has 18 percent less calories than a version without the label even when the two foods are exactly the same

Additionally, by isolating the very tastiest compounds of a food from any of the nutrients that are in those foods, "natural flavors" play havoc with your body's natural hunger and satiety signals, and combine with other problematic ingredients to create an incredibly addictive product that will be nutritionally empty at best and at worst actively detrimental to your health.

Instead of investing in a food industry that cares far more about their bottom line than they do about your health, it's worth putting in the work to get the rawest possible ingredients and make a healthy version of whatever you're craving yourself!

It's time to turn your back on sham "natural flavors" and start flavoring your food in a genuinely natural way with condiments like metabolism-boosting spices, plant-based sweetener stevia, and fruit-based superfood apple cider vinegar.
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