Why Do Companies Use “Natural Flavors”?

Contributing Expert: Menzie Clarke, Senior Flavorist at FONA International


Consumers are demanding serious transparency from food and beverage manufacturers. This in part due due to the desire to return to nature and “real food” (hence the birth of the clean label movement).

Click here to see the top 15 clean label questions answered by consumers.

Recently, consumers have become suspicious of products that list “Natural Flavors” on the label.

Cueing questions such as:

  • What are “Natural Flavors”?
  • If food companies “black box” that ingredient, does that mean they’re hiding something?


This confusion and uncertainty has caused many health-conscious consumers to prefer a label to read:

“Lemon Extract” instead of “Natural Flavor”



Here’s why:

  • “Lemon Extract” is direct and to the point. The language not only clearly demonstrates the fruit origin (lemon) but also the processing technique with which the lemony flavor is obtained (extraction). Transparency = achieved.
  • “Natural Flavor” is indirect and ambiguous. The language does not state agricultural origin or processing technique(s) with which the flavor was obtained. Confusion = achieved.




So with this information why don’t food manufacturers start replacing “natural flavors” with “pure extracts”? We interviewed Menzie Clarke, Senior Flavorist at FONA International — a flavor expert in the industrial food industry. Clarke is a Certified Flavorist with the Society of Flavor Chemists.


Shouldn’t a “pure extract” have more authentic flavor than a “natural flavor”?


“In theory yes, but in actual practice this is not always the case. The authenticity of the flavors is dependent in large part on the portions of the fruit or botanical that gets extracted. For example, in the case of a lemon you can extract the pulp, the peel, or the combination or those. If you’re just extracting the peel you’ll miss the fruity, juicy notes supplied by the pulp and extracting only the pulp will leave you without the zesty notes of the peel.




“If you’re extracting the combination most likely you’re going to get a reasonably well rounded extract that is reminiscent of a real lemon. However, the extraction process itself leads to loss of numerous organic compounds, and/or the development of others through the introduction of heat. A natural flavor may get closer to an authentic flavor than a stand-alone extract because a flavor provides the flexibility to add back those notes that are lost during processing or are missing all together from the extraction process.

“And of course, all of this assumes that it has been a perfect year for lemons with just the right sun, temperature, soil conditions, etc to make the lemon extract the consumer considers to be authentic, versus someone living on the other side of the country or world.”

 Click here to read an interview with ex-Kashi and natural & organic food pioneer, Jeff Grogg.


Can you explain the process of “extraction”?

“Traditional extraction processes include: cold press, steam and solvent extraction. However, extract has a broad definition and can result in more than just traditional fluid extracts. For example, an extraction process may result in a distillate, solid extract, fluid extract, oleoresin, tincture, juice, syrup, essential oils, etc.”


Why don’t Food manufacturers use real, natural concentrates for flavor impact?

“There are number of challenges to using natural concentrates for flavor impact. First, shelf life is typically shorter because of the sugar and water activity associated with using juices and syrups. Sometimes refrigeration can be used to increase or extend shelf-life, or to reduce the risk of a food pathogen developing. But that can add significant cost the transportation and storage of an ingredient — impacting the final cost of the product.




“Natural concentrates will also have lower taste impact and variability in profile, sometimes pronounced, as a result of seasonal conditions such as rain, temperature, soil, sun exposure, etc. Using natural flavor instead can standardize the profile, while utilizing the natural ingredients consumers are looking for in their food.

“If natural concentrates are truly preferred for some consumer perception or labeling reason, folded essential oils, which are very impactful, can be used to help address the challenge of impact that natural concentrates present.”