Looking at the “Natural” in Natural Flavor Labels

Last month, I wrote about the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) found in cans of sparkling water.  I hope that information has helped you choose a better brand while shopping.  As a reminder, a study by Consumer Reports found Sparkling Ice, Spindrift, SanPellegrino, Dasani and Schweppes to have the fewest PFAs, while La Croix, Canada Dry, Poland Spring, Bubly and Polar had the most.

Unfortunately, there are other things to worry about when it comes to carbonated water, too.  Most unsweetened sparkling waters on the market only contain two ingredients: carbonated water and ‘natural flavors.’  Sounds good, right?

Wrong.  At least it could be wrong.  ‘Natural flavors’ bears a bit more examination.

The term ‘natural’ in the food industry is largely unregulated and can thus mean a great number of things.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does give a definition of the term ‘natural, flavor/flavoring’ which includes “…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.”

Whew, that was a mouthful. So, basically, just about anything that was once a spice, fruit, vegetable, plant, meat, egg, fish or dairy—no matter how it changes down the line during processing—can be called ‘natural.’  While I understand a decent amount about food production and chemistry, I fear most of the end products that are included in the umbrella term ‘natural flavorings’ are far from it. 

So, what’s a sparkling water-lover to do?  Go to the source.  Check a brand’s website for information that explains how their sparkling waters are flavored.  Unfortunately, I had a hard time finding any definitive information about those ‘natural flavors.’ According to a July 21, 2017 article by Registered Dietitian Keri Glassman on the USA Today website, the brand LaCroix’s website states that the ‘natural flavors’ used are “natural essence oils extracted from the named fruit in each of our LaCroix flavors.” While I couldn’t find that statement on the website, I trust it is (or was) there.  I also looked at Sanpellegrino and Schweppes’ websites, and had similar experiences while looking for any sort of explanation of their ‘natural flavors.’

Enter Spindrift to the rescue!  Have you heard of this brand?  Instead of using ‘natural flavors,’ Spindrift uses real fruit juice.  Smart, right?  Brilliant, in fact.  Not only do we not have to worry about what could be lurking in those ‘natural flavors,’ Spindrift was also one of the brands with the fewest PFAs.  Win-win!  Spindrift features a wide range of flavors, from cucumber to pineapple to blackberry.  And don’t be surprised that your beverage has a bit of color when you pour it into a glass—it’s that real fruit juice shining through.

Another option if you’re concerned about ‘natural flavors’: choose plain carbonated water.  The only ingredient will be water, but it’ll be extra-refreshing with the bubbles.  While I’m (basically) an equal-opportunity sparkling-water drinker when it comes to brand, I’ve started to become pickier about the ‘natural flavors’ I’m consuming on the regular.

Bottom Line:  I do not want to discourage anyone from drinking sparkling water, especially if it’s in place of a sugary beverage.  What I do want is to continue to encourage everyone to read their ingredient labels and find out what they’re consuming, even if it takes a little digging.

Up next: foods that SEEM healthy (but aren’t) and healthy foods that you may not recognize as such.

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