What’s the deal with natural flavors?

From the desk of
Robb Wolf
ScienceWhat’s the deal with natural flavors?

Natural flavors are a hot button topic these days. I understand why folks get worried — many different flavors can be combined to comprise the “natural flavors” listed under any one item’s ingredients, meaning natural flavors don’t always contain the same thing. Personally, I have celiac disease, which makes me extra cautious of what’s in my food. If I see natural flavors on the ingredient list, I do more digging before I’m comfortable consuming the item.

That’s one of the reasons we keep gluten, dairy, soy, and eggs out of LMNT — both the ingredients at large, and the natural flavors we use. We keep the formulation as simple as possible to prevent it interfering with as many diets as we can.

Still, I get many questions about natural flavors — both generally and in the context of LMNT. In this article, I aim to answer those questions as best I can.

What Are Natural Flavors?

Natural flavors are broadly defined as food flavors that originate from plants or animals. The source material can be “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,” per the FDA.

Here are some common examples of natural flavors:

  • Limonene: Citrus flavor derived from lemon peels. 
  • Amyl acetate: Banana flavor derived from bananas.
  • Benzaldehyde: Nutty flavor derived from almonds.
  • Citral: Tangy flavor derived from citrus fruits.
  • Anise essential oil: Licorice flavor derived from anise seeds.

To be clear, most “natural flavors” on an ingredients label aren’t a single molecule. They’re many flavoring compounds combined to create a specific taste.

Natural Flavors vs Artificial Flavors

Unlike natural flavors, artificial flavors have synthetic origins. If it doesn’t come from plant or animal sources, it’s artificial. That’s the FDA guidance.

Yet different origins don’t necessarily mean different molecules. Natural limonene (from lemons) and synthetic limonene are chemically identical. A flavor expert wouldn’t be able to distinguish them, and neither would a high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GCMS).

But differences arise when you zoom out. When you extract flavor from a lemon, you get more than just limonene. For instance, lemon essential oil also contains pinene, terpinene, sabinene, myrcene, geranial, and other compounds that contribute to flavor.

An artificially flavored lemon drink might use limonene only. A naturally flavored lemon drink will have more compounds, more depth, and a more complex flavor profile. This is a pro for natural flavors — they taste more like the real thing, because they usually contain more of… wait for it… the real thing.

That said, artificial flavors are cheaper to make. It’s pricey to extract flavorful compounds from biological material, so many companies choose not to.

The Production of Natural Flavors

A lot of people get jumpy because flavorings — both natural and artificial — are made in a lab. Allow me to pose to you a simple question: Where would you prefer flavors to be produced? A creek bed? A barnyard?

Labs are controlled environments. They’re basically ultra clean kitchens designed for flavor extraction. My daughter and I have a “lab” in the corner of our garage to steam-distill essential oil from lavender flowers. We do chemistry there, just like chemistry happens everywhere, every day in nature. The chemistry in a lab just happens to be human-powered.

With that frame in mind, humans have multiple methods for isolating natural flavors from plants or animals. Some examples will help illustrate.

I already mentioned steam distillation, a typical process for extracting essential oils. You direct steam through plant material, collect and condense the resulting vapor, and separate the oil from the water layer. You then simply collect the essential oil, aka the “natural flavor.”

Other techniques such as maceration, percolation, and infusion involve soaking plant material in a solvent to allow various flavor compounds to break free from the plant. The solvent is typically water, but may include a bit of ethyl alcohol that later evaporates. After a few hours or days, you strain the mixture to remove the flavor compounds. These may sound scary or “unnatural,” but consider this: If you made coffee or tea this morning, you extracted a natural compound in much the same way.

Other extraction methods include:

  • Cold pressing: Crushing the plant matter to release the oil (think olive oil).
  • Fermentation: Using bacteria to extract or modify flavor (think kombucha).
  • Hydrolysis: Using water to break apart compounds, most often proteins, to create flavor (think umami).
  • Decoction: Boiling the plant material to dissolve the desired compounds (think beer production).

What About Maltodextrin?

After extraction, natural flavors sometimes need to be given a new form factor. Say, for example, you’re making a powdered electrolyte drink mix, but are using an essential oil as part of the flavoring. This may include a pinch of maltodextrin as a flavor carrier. I mean that literally: You spray the natural flavors (a liquid) onto maltodextrin (a powder) to absorb and “carry” those flavors. Then you can blend your flavor with your other ingredients.

Our team receives questions about maltodextrin each month because our flavored drink mix options use it as a flavor carrier. To get straight to the point:

  • Flavored LMNT drink mix contains a small amount (250 to 550 mg) of maltodextrin.
  • The maltodextrin used in LMNT is derived from corn.
  • The maltodextrin used in LMNT is GMO-free.
  • Maltodextrin is gluten-free and hypoallergenic, for those with dietary restrictions.
  • Maltodextrin is not listed on LMNT’s label because it is a miniscule amount.

Another question we receive is whether LMNT will increase blood sugar levels due to maltodextrin’s high glycemic index. The important thing to note is that the small amount (250 to 550 mg) of maltodextrin used in LMNT equates to between ~1 and ~2 calories. Therefore it’s unlikely to raise blood sugar levels.

Many folks on the LMNT team — and in our larger community — have shared that their Continuous Glucose Monitor data show no significant blood sugar increase from drinking LMNT. But of course, we encourage you to test that yourself and make your own choices when it comes to your health. If the small amounts in our flavored drink mix options are a concern for you, LMNT Raw Unflavored Drink Mix and LMNT Sparkling do not contain any maltodextrin.

The Safety of Natural Flavors

In 1958, the Food Additives and Amendment Act gave the FDA responsibility for regulating all food additives (including flavors) used in US food. Under this system, a flavor is either GRAS (generally recognized as safe) or regulated as a food additive by the FDA. Let’s explore each classification.

GRAS means a panel of scientists has deemed the compound safe at the levels normally consumed by humans. This panel is a part of the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) of the United States. When FEMA declares a flavoring compound GRAS (over 2,800 have this status), the FDA is cool with its usage in food.

“Levels normally consumed” is the operative phrase in the GRAS definition. With everything we consume, the dose makes the poison. Too much water is toxic, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t drink it. Allergy concerns aside, small quantities of GRAS natural flavors aren’t likely worth stressing over… I call this “majoring in the minors.” I do NOT say this to be disparaging, but rather based on my 25 years of experience working with folks on health. My opinion is that there are a lot more important areas to focus on that would likely provide far more benefit. But, by all means, each person should make their own decisions based on their needs and goals.

Moving on, if a flavor ingredient doesn’t qualify as GRAS, the FDA regulates it as a food additive or supplement. Any new additive must undergo a stringent and lengthy process that helps authorities determine the substance’s safety. It includes a literature review, toxicology considerations, and more. If there isn’t much data on a compound, the FDA might examine data on “structurally related substances” — compounds with a similar molecular structure.

Rounding out safety concerns, I’d always encourage caution for anyone with severe food allergies. Terms like natural or artificial flavors can sometimes veil allergenic ingredients like gluten or dairy. Responsible companies understand this and list any possible allergens in their products. They will also indicate if their machines are used to create other products which may contain allergens. Again, LMNT contains zero gluten, soy, eggs, dairy, shellfish, or other allergens, and is rigorously tested. We also prioritize dedicated machinery for manufacturing our products.

FAQs About Natural Flavors in LMNT

We get questions about the natural flavors in LMNT pretty frequently, so I thought I’d address them all at once. Here we go!

Why does LMNT use natural flavors?

Well, we wanted to use supernatural flavors, but we were all out of holy water… Just kidding! We use natural flavors because we like the depth and complexity of the flavor profiles — they taste better. Using these extracts also helps provide measurable quality and consistency throughout the production process.

What natural flavors does LMNT use? 

We know that many folks in our community have health concerns that warrant them knowing exactly what they’re putting in their body. To that end, we will always strive to be as transparent as we can regarding our ingredients.

Our natural flavors are distilled or extracted from fruits, roots, and spices. None of our natural flavors or other ingredients are derived from animals, so LMNT is vegan-friendly.

I understand why the ambiguity of not disclosing the complete list of compounds here might irk a few people. I care about what I put in my body too. The truth is that LMNT’s formulation is simple — it can be (and has already been) copied. However, our flavors are unique. We put a ton of time and effort into developing each one — and we view them as proprietary. Maybe not as guarded closely as the nuclear codes or the Coca-Cola formulation, but they’re absolutely a part of our “secret sauce.”

For folks that prefer to avoid natural flavors, we offer our Raw Unflavored drink mix. You can flavor it yourself with a squeeze of lemon or whatever other ingredients suit your taste. At the end of the day, above anything else, we care about health outcomes — so if you prefer to mix your own ingredients into “homemade LMNT,” here’s the recipe.

Do the natural flavors in LMNT contain GMOs?

Our natural flavors are GMO-free. This is different from “non-GMO,” since some components of our natural flavors may be derived from genetically modified materials (like corn, potato, and tomato), but the end product contains zero DNA from any bioengineered materials.

Are the natural flavors in LMNT safe?

We only use natural flavors with well-established safety profiles. The FDA regulates which flavors are generally recognized as safe, but some compounds have more safety data than others. We were diligent to avoid anything questionable in our products, and always will be.

We’re super sensitive to allergy concerns as well. Our suppliers, manufacturers, and an independent third party test at every point along the production process: the raw materials, the bulk mix of blended raw materials, and the finished products themselves.

Our natural flavors’ supplier is held to the same standards we hold all of our partners. Regular audits ensure compliance with FDA food manufacturing guidance under 21 CFR 117, including sanitation, employee hygiene, specific allergen programs, and overall Good Manufacturing Practices.

The bottom line on safety for me is that I drink LMNT. My wife drinks LMNT. My kids drink LMNT. And we all drink a lot of it. I’m beyond just “comfortable” with the ingredient list — I feel good about giving it to myself and all my loved ones.

Parting Thoughts on Natural Flavors

If you’re concerned about natural flavors, I get it. They can have weird, chemical-sounding names. They can be allergenic. Their exact constituents feel mysterious. But for most folks, natural flavors aren’t anything to worry about.

At the end of the day, your health journey is your own. We encourage you to make your own informed choices along the way, including how you choose to Stay Salty.

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