Anyone who has ever read the label of anything has seen "natural flavors" listed. And some, including my former self, probably thought to themselves, "Oh good, flavors from nature. I'll take it." But I just read the label on my tube of toothpaste and "natural flavors" was listed. I could see it popping up in some foods... frozen desserts, maybe a variation of snacks.... but what the fuck are natural flavors doing in my toothpaste. The "flavor" is mint, so why not call it mint?
Probably because that mint is actually fucking corn.
Here is what "natural flavoring" is, as listed on the FDA's Code of Federal Regulation:
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.
Natural flavors may be composed of anywhere from 50-100 ingredients, and the only thing that separates natural flavors from artificial flavors, is that the chemicals used to create them are derived from natural sources as opposed to full out man-made ones. Someone in a lab takes something natural, like a peach... finds a chemical inside the peach, extracts it, refines it in a thousand different ways, combines it with a bunch of other shit that had the same thing happen to it, and threw it in your packaged food. Then they list it just once (a sneaky way of calling attention away from the fact that it's plural) on a label as "natural flavors." If it said "artificial flavors," it wouldn't have started in a peach, it would have started in a petri dish. But the natural flavors have components that spent a good amount of time in a petri dish, too, so really, what the fuck is the difference?
"Natural flavors" are also just as responsible for providing flavors that are not found in nature as artificial flavors are, so we end up seeking out flavors that are completely made up by some asshole with a God complex. There is even reason to believe natural flavors induce cravings, which I'm pretty sure is the opposite of what food is supposed to do. Many of them are preservatives and flavoring that will ensure consistency, so that you can rely on the same taste anywhere you live, and time of year - often from an item that technically should be seasonal (like juice, for example).
Basically, natural flavors are a combination of whatever the fuck a company feels like injecting into their already processed foods in order to make it taste juuuuust right. We're all Goldilocks at heart, and those selfless big companies know it! So they put "natural flavors" in shit so that they can Stepford Wives our grocery stores and make everything the exact same, always and everywhere.
Taking it a step further, as science always does: Since natural flavors can come from anything natural, why not from a beaver's asshole?
One of those "natural flavors" is castoreum, the fluid that is secreted out of a beaver's castor sac/anal gland. This article on Care2 provides a brief history of humans coveting this little treasure... But, in the spirit of learning, allow me to regale you with the story. Humans always think they can take, and have, whatever the fuck they want. So, one day, a human said, "I like that little beaver's fuzzy skin, I want to wear it as a hat. Therefore, I shall skin him and wear him as a hat." Once that caught on, another [sick bastard] said, "that little beaver not only makes a nice hat, he also has an ANAL GLAND THAT SECRETES A FLUID. IT WOULD BE MIGHTY NICE TO TAKE HIS ANAL GLAND OUT OF HIS BUTT AND USE IT, MAYBE IT WILL MAKE MY SNIFFLES GO AWAY." And now we use it in products like perfume, cigarettes, candles, and most raspberry flavored foods like yogurt and ice cream (shouldn't we be calling it Ass Cream? Isn't that a little more accurate?).
And that, my friends, is why history class could have been a lot more interesting than your teachers ever made it seem. Because humans are fucking absurd.
This article in the Alternative Daily gives a little more insight into what is considered natural in your "natural flavors":
It is important to understand that just because natural flavors come from something natural, does not necessarily make them healthy. For instance, strawberry flavor does not always come from strawberries or blueberry flavor from blueberries. Cystine is a natural conditioner used in dough that is made from duck feathers and human hair. Maltodextrin, made from genetically-modified corn and the main ingredient in some “all-natural” sweeteners like stevia, is also considered natural.
Even crazier than the fact that you might regularly consume duck feathers, is that your organic snacks only have to be 95% organic in order to be labeled as such, so you actually still have to read the label on your granola bars if you really want to be sure that you're not eating something that once graced the inside of a sac in a rodent's ass.
I also want to address the fact that Cystine (human hair and duck feathers) is used in DOUGH. So the Pillsbury Dough Boy is a liar? All this time? ACTUALLY, fret not. Pillsbury doesn't fuck around. They use straight up artificial flavors AND COLORS in their crescent rolls:
Why the fuck does Pillsbury need to use artificial colors on their bread? I'm torn, because I feel as though they're being more honest than some, but I'm also wondering what compelled them to feel they needed to color their bread the color of bread. If there were no artificial colors, what the fuck color would it be???
The quantities of preservatives, and butt glands, and altered-in-a-lab ingredients in "natural flavors" may be small enough that there aren't any known illnesses linked to their consumption. However, I feel like this one infuriates me based on principal alone. There's a severe lack of transparency here, but also, this one cuts deep because beavers are in my top three favorite animals, so I find it extra disturbing that this is, or has been, relatively common practice. They're nature's architects, it's time to leave them the fuck alone. Plus they have strong-ass family values and I think that's really cool.
And it's also time to stop making shit in a lab and putting it in our food under the pretense that it's something it's not.
I can only imagine what "natural flavors" are in my toothpaste, but if I am brushing my teeth with the anal secretions of my favorite animal, I can tell you, Tom's of Maine will be hearing from me. And so will President Obama. Michelle, too. And Bernie.