Are 'Natural Flavors' Healthier Than Artificial Flavors?

A photograph of a strawberry next to an illustration of a strawberry Photo Illustration: Lacey Browne/Consumer Reports, Getty Images

Not necessarily. According to Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at CR, “There’s no real difference between natural and artificial flavors in terms of nutrition.”

“Natural flavors,” as defined by the Food and Drug Administration, means that a flavoring comes from a plant or animal source—but those flavors aren’t always derived from the ingredient whose taste they mimic. Scientists extract chemicals from these natural sources in the lab, but they can use synthetic solvents and artificial preservatives and processing aids to do that. (The natural flavors used in organic foods may be preferable because organic regulations state that they can’t be made with synthetic solvents or artificial preservatives.) Creating an artificial flavor is a similar process: The only difference is that the flavor compounds are developed in a lab rather than taken from a plant or an animal.

Both natural and artificial flavors are probably safe for most of us to consume, Hansen says. But because the specific ingredients generally aren’t reviewed by the FDA—and companies are usually not required to disclose the ingredients of natural or artificial flavors on food labels—it’s difficult to know for sure. For this reason, people with food allergies should be particularly careful when consuming food or drinks that have either natural or artificial flavorings.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the June 2022 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.