Natural flavors are often touted as a healthier alternative to artificial flavors. But are they really that different? And are there any side effects associated with consuming natural flavors? In this article, we'll explore the world of natural flavors and their potential side effects.
What are natural flavors?
Natural flavors are flavors that are derived from natural sources such as plants, animals, or fermentation.(1) They are used in a wide range of food and beverage products to enhance the taste and aroma. Natural flavors are often preferred by consumers over artificial flavors because they are perceived as being healthier and more authentic.
How are natural flavors different from artificial flavors?
While natural flavors are derived from natural sources, artificial flavors are made from synthetic chemicals. However, the difference between the two is not always clear-cut. Natural flavors can still be processed and modified in a lab to enhance their flavor profile.(2) In fact, the process of extracting natural flavors can sometimes involve the use of chemicals such as solvents and preservatives.(3) This means that natural flavors are not necessarily "pure" or free from additives.
What are the potential side effects of natural flavors?
Despite their perceived health benefits, natural flavors can still have side effects. Here are some of the potential risks associated with consuming natural flavors:
Allergic reactions: As with any food ingredient, natural flavors can cause allergic reactions in some people. This is because natural flavors can be derived from common allergens such as nuts, soy, and wheat. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that natural flavors were the fourth most common cause of food-related allergic reactions.(4) Symptoms of an allergic reaction to natural flavors can range from mild (such as itching and hives) to severe (such as anaphylaxis).
Toxicity: Some natural flavors, such as coumarin (found in cinnamon) and safrole (found in sassafras), have been shown to be toxic in high doses.(5) However, the levels of these compounds found in natural flavors are generally considered safe for human consumption. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has established limits on the use of certain natural flavors to ensure their safety.(6)
Cancer risk: There is some concern that certain natural flavors may increase the risk of cancer. For example, a study published in the International Journal of Cancer found that high intake of a flavoring compound called 2,3-pentanedione (found in buttery flavors) was associated with an increased risk of lung cancer in mice. However, it is important to note that this study used high doses of the compound and the relevance to human consumption is unclear. Additionally, the FDA has approved the use of 2,3-pentanedione in food products at levels considered safe for human consumption.(7)
Migraines: Some people may experience migraines after consuming natural flavors. This may be due to the presence of certain compounds in natural flavors such as tyramine and phenylethylamine. These compounds are known to trigger migraines in some individuals.(8)
Digestive issues: Some people may experience digestive issues after consuming natural flavors, such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea. This may be due to the presence of certain compounds in natural flavors, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG is a flavor enhancer that is often added to natural flavors to improve their taste. However, some people may be sensitive to MSG and experience digestive issues after consuming it.(9)
Natural flavors are not necessarily a "healthier" alternative to artificial flavors. While they are derived from natural sources, they can still be processed and modified in a lab. Additionally, natural flavors can have potential side effects such as allergic reactions, toxicity, and cancer risk. It is important to remember that the safety of natural flavors (and all food ingredients) is regulated by the FDA. As long as natural flavors are used within the approved limits, they can be safely consumed as part of a balanced diet.