After years of litigation around 'all-natural', given the lack of legal definition, some plaintiff's attorneys have started to turn their attention to the components of natural flavors – ingredients that, unlike the term 'all-natural', are clearly defined by law (21CFR501.22).
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), natural flavors are: “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.”
Last month, LaCroix maker National Beverage Corp found itself fighting a lawsuit alleging it falsely marketed its flavored sparkling water (made from carbonated water and natural flavor) as 'all natural'. The complaint alleged the drink was “manufactured using non-natural flavorings and synthetic compounds” - suggestions the beverage maker strongly refuted, stating the drinks contained natural essential oils from the named fruit used in each of its flavors.
Last year, Hint Inc was accused of falsely advertising its wares as ‘all-natural’ when they contained natural flavors featuring propylene glycol (PG), while Spindrift phased out its use of natural flavors claiming that they were something of a black box ("By around 2013, 2014, the #1 question we were getting from consumers was: 'What is in your ‘natural flavors’? The problem is that when you buy natural flavors, they are not required to disclose exactly what is in there. You can ask hard questions, but we really never got to the point where we could definitively say what was going in our product and I just wasn’t comfortable with that.")
Derived from something natural is 'very ambiguous'
John Boyd, CEO and co-founder of Buddha Teas, said that while 'natural flavors' are defined in law, consumers don't know what's in them.
“I mean, it's very deceiving – the whole legalities around being able to use the wording 'natural flavoring'. ...The FDA statement just means it needs to be derived from something natural and 'derived from something natural' is very ambiguous - that's the loophole,” Boyd told FoodNavigator-USA.
Natural flavoring in vanilla ice cream can be made with castoreum, a substance derived from beaver anal glands, for example, said Boyd, but consumers would have no way of knowing this from the label.
Another example was ginger ale, Boyd said. “What companies do with their labeling is if you've got a ginger ale made with real ginger it says 'made with real ginger'. Now, that's great and if you're in the know and educated, you know that's actually made with real ginger. But if you're not in the know, you may think 'made with natural ginger flavor' also contains ginger, but often there's zero ginger inside it – it's a big cover-up.”
So, what should change?
“I think the answer is that the legislation and the FDA rules around it have to change to be about more clear labeling,” Boyd said. The law had to be tightened to ensure consumers knew exactly what they were getting and avoid any confusion, he argued.
Manufacturers also had to act, he said.“Simply put: be real with the public. Reveal the truth to consumers and let them make an informed decision about what they choose to buy, or not.”
Boyd said not every company or brand had to switch away from natural flavorings, just be clearer, although as more consumers became aware of natural flavor origins, there could be a shift in purchasing behavior which many companies would then want to follow.
Natural flavors and price
The big reason behind the widespread use and existence of natural flavors was simple, he claimed: price.
“I think a lot of it is cost reasons but also because the US palate has been trained to believe that these are real flavors. We're stimulating our taste buds so heavily that when you have something that's real, it's bland.”
Since its launch in 2009, Boyd said Buddha Teas had never used natural flavorings, always opting for real fruits and herbs. Its turmeric and ginger tea, for example, was made using dissolvable plant extracts and its fruit teas, freeze-dried berries. Certified organic, Buddha Teas sourced its ingredients globally from California Certified Organic Farmers Foundation (CCOF)-approved farms. Retailing at US$8 per 18-teabag box, the brand stood at the premium end of the market.
“The reason I wanted to create Buddha Teas in the first place was due to the very fact there were no American-based tea companies offering a huge variety of teas without additives, and that includes so-called 'natural flavorings'.
"It is vital to me that truth and transparency are an integral part of our business model. If you look on labels of other well-known, so-called medicinal tea companies, you'll regularly find ingredients listed that do not actually tell the consumer anything. 'Natural flavoring' – this does not tell the truth. And that, to me, is unethical,” Boyd said.