Just what exactly are “natural flavors?” You might be surprised…
“Natural flavoring” is an incredibly vague term. It essentially means the flavoring could come from anything deemed natural. I mean really, it couldn’t be any less specific. Just take a look at the official definition…
The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, 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 nutritional.
What this basically means is that on a product-to-product basis, “natural flavors” may or may not be vegan, and good luck finding out – unless you can get a hold of a rep from the company who can verify the source. Your intuition may lead you to assume that if a product’s flavor is supposed to emulate something that is inherently vegan, like vanilla for example, then the “natural flavor” is likely from vanilla beans and therefor vegan. Unfortunately, that logic does not hold up.
The advertised flavor of a particular food item is not a good indication of the source of the “natural flavors” used in that product. Castoreum is one of the weirdest examples of this. Castoreum is a flavoring that is derived from the anal gland of beavers – Not joking, not making this up!
What’s even weirder… castoreum is not used to give products a beaver-y taste, it’s actually used for emulating flavors like vanilla.
What to Do if a Product Contains “Natural Flavors”
If you come across a product you would like to purchase and you notice it contains “natural flavors,” the best thing you can do in this case is contact the company directly and try to speak to a representative. They may be able to tell you exactly where the flavors come from.
You could also just consider the product to be “99% vegan.” Even if the “natural flavors” are not from a strictly vegan source, they likely account for less than one percent of the ingredients – probably far less than one percent. Some argue it is better to support a product that is 99 percent vegan than it is to boycott it. We here at VeganFoodLover.com tend to agree with that philosophy, so even if a product contains “nautural flavoring,” we still list it as vegan as long as it does not contain any other animal ingredients.
Lastly, Don’t Panic!!!
The realization that some of the foods you eat might contain an extract from a beaver’s rear-end may throw you into a panic – understandably so – but before you start assuming that everything labeled “natural flavoring” must have come from a beaver’s butt, you should know that the use of castoreum – and presumably other non-vegan “natural flavors” – is becoming exceedingly rare. You should also know that many products containing castoreum are not vegan to begin with – e.g., gelatin desserts and yogurt – and even if you do happen to consume a product that contains it, it poses no harm to your health.