Understanding Natural & Artificial Flavors to Make Informed Choices
At the bakery, we believe food is healthiest when eaten is its whole form – that means when we bake a peanut butter cookie, we just use peanut butter! It may seem like a no-brainer that flavor comes from using real ingredients but other ingredients like natural flavors are often snuck in to intensify specific flavors. What’s the big deal about natural flavors… they’re natural, right? Well, they start out as a natural element and are altered through chemical and biological processes until nearly 80%1 of the flavor is actually just emulsifiers and preservatives. Learning this led us to deeply question the need for natural flavoring so we’re here to share our journey so that you can make your own informed decisions about this mystery ingredient!
As convenient and healthy food options are becoming more popular we want our customers to be confident in knowing exactly what is in their favorite Erin Baker’s® Breakfast Cookies & Granola. One of our company’s core values is to provide transparency for our customers. This inspired us to begin the process of Non-GMO Project Verification 5 years ago. This process allowed us to take a magnifying glass to every ingredient in our products. One ingredient stuck out amongst the crowd; natural flavors. When we tried to find out more from our suppliers about the natural flavors we were using, we received responses that were vague and proprietary, which only left us with more questions. Because of the lack of transparency surrounding natural flavors, we decided to eliminate them all together. Since then we have been using only whole food ingredients to flavor our delicious Breakfast Cookies, Granola & Sprouted Snacks. This means our customers are getting a mouthwatering bite of peanut butter, cinnamon, or real banana puree when they tear open a Breakfast Cookie. Who would choose a flavoring agent, when they can have the real thing? Using real ingredients also means that our baked goods contain more of the necessary nutrients for a healthy lifestyle!
What is a Natural Flavor?
A natural flavor is made of chemicals derived from a natural source. The FDA regulates the $24 billion natural flavor industry1 requiring that these biologically adapted flavors can only be obtained by heating or roasting animal or plant material. However, enzymes, solvents and emulsifiers may also be used to create the chemical reaction that extracts the flavors from spices, fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and edible plants such as herbs and bark.2 Natural flavors are in a variety of foods that you may never expect like butter, chips, crackers, cereals, tea, bread and even uncooked meat. “Scientists, called flavorists, use derivatives of [natural sources] to create over 2,000 chemicals that make up 500 natural flavors.”3 The goal is to create a flavor that will tell your senses you’re eating peanut butter when the food in fact may not even contain real peanuts.
What is an Artificial Flavor?
Artificial flavors can be made of a variety of chemicals derived from sources you wouldn’t think you’d be eating (for example paper pulp or petroleum)4 in order to mimic a particular flavor into chemical form. You can have artificial orange, coconut, vanilla and almost any other flavor you can imagine. Interestingly, most artificial flavors contain fewer chemicals than natural ones because the process of making artificial ingredients is less complex.1
Why Use Natural Flavors?
Are there any benefits to using natural or artificial flavors? After all flavor is the 4th most common ingredient in all processed foods following only salt, water and sugar2, there must be some benefit, right? Neither natural nor artificial flavors add any nutritional benefit to the foods they’re in. The benefit food companies have found is having a more powerful and consistent flavor in the products that contain them. When consumers expect to taste a perfectly banana-y banana nut muffin every time they eat it, using natural or artificial banana flavors will ensure a happy customer and a delicious product every time! Unfortunately, this also means you will be missing out on the nutritional benefits of more whole bananas being in those muffins! (When you have added flavoring to boost the taste, food companies don’t need to add as much of the real thing.) When we make our Banana Walnut Breakfast Cookie we want to make sure you taste only real banana puree baked into whole oats and walnut chunks, just the way it would taste if you had baked them at home. We also want you to get all of the potassium, fiber and vitamin C that bananas possess.
If you’re a home baker and have purchased real vanilla extract you will understand that natural and artificial flavors are less expensive than the real thing! EWG claims that the cost of the (natural and artificial) flavors in a food can be around half a penny per serving”1. This is a huge motivator for many companies that can make their products taste delicious while also cutting costs.
The alternatives to using natural and artificial flavors are to use essential oils, flavor extracts and real foods to flavor food products. We choose the route of using whole food ingredients! If we used natural or artificial flavors rather than real food you would miss out on the fiber and manganese in the coconut flakes used in our Coconut Chia or Fruit & Nut Homestyle Granolas. You’d miss out on the beta carotene from carrots and the digestive benefits of dried apples that are baked into our Carrot Cake Breakfast Cookie. Other brands who we love that don’t use natural or artificial flavors in their delicious products are Spindrift sparkling water, Vitacoco coconut water, Epic protein powder and Nutzo nut butter spreads. These brands are proving that we don’t need to have natural or artificial flavors to provide people with easy, healthy and delicious food options.
Why do we care so much?
Natural flavors are on the rise! Mintel reports that 61% of North American product launches contained natural flavors in 2012.5 You can imagine that as artificial ingredients and flavors are becoming less popular, the number of natural options has probably grown a lot since then. As a company we put a lot of value on transparency and whole food ingredients. We only work with suppliers like Shepard’s Grain who are willing to tell us everything about the ingredients we are purchasing. Because it’s a complex process to make that perfect natural banana flavor, the exact ingredients are proprietary information. This means there are sub ingredients being used that don’t make it to the product label you’re reading! By using whole food ingredients we are able to ensure transparency throughout every step of the process from seed to bakery.
If you google “natural flavors” you will quickly see that there are conflicting arguments on whether they are dangerous or harmless. This is a great example of how the food industry puts the burden on us and the shopper to decipher what is safest to put in our bodies and our families bodies. Erin Baker’s wants to help make healthy easier! That’s why we are committed to our Non-GMO promise and why we make food with simple ingredients that you can recognize.
We’re not here to say that you should not eat any natural flavors or artificial flavors. What we want to do is start a conversation about this ingredient. We asked ourselves why this ingredient was considered ‘natural’ and we couldn’t find a good answer. We want to encourage you to do your own research, pay attention to your food labels and see how frequently your favorite products use flavorings, whether natural or artificial, to enhance that flavor and keep you coming back for more. Let us know your opinion on eating natural and artificial flavors in the comments below or on any of our social media platforms.
Customer Service | Erin Baker's
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- Environmental Working Group - Natural vs Artificial Flavors
- Healthline - Natural Flavors: Should You Eat Them?
- Ameritas - 4 Things to Know About Natural & Artificial Flavors
- Wiley Online Library - Biosynthesis of plant derived flavor compounds
- Brandon Gaille - 18 Food Additives Industry Statistics & Trends