Are Natural Flavors Vegan? (Here’s Why It Depends)

If you’re here, then you’re probably questioning if you can include “natural flavors” in your vegan diet.

They’re in many product labels but manufacturers aren’t explicit about their composition.

“Natural flavors” is essentially a term used to describe natural ingredients that are used for flavoring purposes. Some of these ingredients are vegan, and some are not.

Certain brands hide non-vegan ingredients under the “natural flavors” umbrella and hide the fact their products are not vegan or vegetarian.

An ingredient that often falls under that category is castoreum, a slightly sweet substance that is found in the anal secretions of beavers, which is sometimes used to substitute vanilla, and even enhance strawberry and raspberry flavors.

If you’re interested in learning more about natural flavors (and whether or not you should keep consuming them), feel free to continue reading.

This blog post takes a comprehensive look at what natural flavors are, their vegan-friendly status, and potential health concerns.

Natural Flavors: What Exactly Are They?

Here is the FDA’s quick definition of “natural flavors”:

“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.”

In other words, natural flavors can be anything approved for use in food.

However, it’s impossible to tell what’s in natural flavors unless a company specifies it on the label.

Most vegan and vegetarian-oriented companies disclose what type of ingredients they use in natural flavors, but the overwhelming majority of the companies don’t do it.

But why do companies really hide this information?

Some suggest it’s a way of hiding the “secret sauce” so companies can preserve the uniqueness and identity of their product. That prevents other companies from creating duplicates.

How To Know Which Natural Flavors Are Vegan

Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing (for certain) which natural flavors contain non-vegan ingredients because the FDA doesn’t require companies to disclose those ingredients.

Generally, there are two ways to obtain that information:

  1. You visit the company’s website and check whether or not they disclose that information on their product or FAQ page;
  2. If that information is not available anywhere, you can either call them or send them an email.

Though, to be honest, most websites have nothing on that subject.

In addition, my wife has recently tried to contact Red Bull to see what they had to say about the natural flavors in their products, and we’ve never heard from them since.

Depending on the company, you might be able to attain a real response (or not).

The Difference Between Natural and Artificial Flavors

Natural flavors are derived from plants and animals, while artificial flavors are derived from man-made substances.

However, natural flavors are also formulated in labs, and their molecules can be identical.

To be deemed “natural”, a flavor only needs to be 80% natural. The remaining 20% can be a mixture of chemicals with addictive properties.

Some people are surprised by the fact that natural flavors contain preservatives and solvents, substances that can be deemed toxic. Also, ingredients that originate from genetically modified crops can also be considered natural if we stick by the FDA’s definition.

Needless to say, the difference between natural and artificial flavors isn’t that significant.

Are Natural Flavors Safe For Consumption?

As we’ve seen, all flavors contain chemicals, regardless of being natural or artificial.

Natural flavors, in particular, are complex blends created by specially trained food chemists known as flavorists. In addition to the original plant or animal-based source, they can contain over 100 chemicals, including preservatives, solvents, and other substances. 

As mentioned, manufacturers aren’t required to disclose any information on whether these additional chemicals come from natural or synthetic sources. As long as the majority of the flavor is comprised of a plant or animal-based ingredient, the flavor is considered natural.

This being said, they all need to be evaluated by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) Expert Panel to ensure they meet safety standards. The results are then reported to the FDA, where it can be added to the “Generally Recognized as Safe” list of substances that are exempt from any further evaluation by the FDA.

These flavors should also have been reviewed by other international regulatory entities, namely the European Food Safety Authority.

However, keep in mind that the members of the FEMA have been criticized by nutrition experts and public interest groups for not disclosing safety data on natural flavors.

It would be negligent to put your faith in organizations that don’t fully disclose their information, especially when you realize the intricate nature of natural flavors.

Should Vegans Avoid Natural Flavors?

There are literally hundreds of natural flavors in foods.

And while you may be able to find a given number of animal derivatives in animal flavors, the majority of natural flavors are extracted from plant-based sources.

If you’re in a bind, you can always make an educated guess.

For instance, regular crackers are less likely to have natural flavors derived from animal ingredients. In addition, beverages like Fanta are more likely to contain natural flavors derived from plant-based ingredients like oranges.

However, if you’re planning to make a decision from a health standpoint, the best option is to avoid all foods with natural or artificial flavors, as they are not healthy.

Hey there! My name is Alex and I've been vegan for over five years! I've set up this blog because I'm passionate about veganism and living a more spiritually fulfilling life where I'm more in tune with nature. Hopefully, I can use Vegan Foundry as a channel to help you out on your own journey!