Natural flavors

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I was reading through Reed Mangel’s new book The Everything Vegan Pregnancy Book (because, in case you hadn’t heard, we’ve got a second little vegan on the way!) and came across this little nugget of info that, I admit, I hadn’t heard before:

If an ingredient listing contains the term “natural flavors,” the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) requires that, if the natural flavors are derived from animal sources, the label indicates this. The term “natural flavors” on a label without additional qualification means spices, spice extracts, or essential oils were used to flavor the food.

This goes against the conventional vegan wisdom of “natural flavors just mean they weren’t made in a laboratory, so they can be animal-or-plant derived.” I had no idea that it’ legally needs to state if any of those natural flavors come from animal sources.

This FAQ on the FSIS page seems to confirm this:

Can the terms “dried meat or poultry stocks,” “dried broth,” “meat extracts,” and “dried beef plasma” be listed on meat and poultry labels as “natural flavorings”?

No. Substances derived from animal sources must be identified as to the species of origin on the label and be consistent with the definition established by Federal regulation. For example, the listing on the label would read “dried chicken stock,” “lamb extract,” or “dried beef plasma.”

My only follow-up question would be if this includes things like dairy-derived flavoring, but there’s some clarification on that further down the page:

Can hydrolyzed animal or vegetable protein be identified as “natural flavoring” on the label?

No. FSIS regulation requires that animal or vegetable proteins must be specifically identified in the ingredient statement on the labels. The source of the protein must also be disclosed. On the label, you will read “hydrolyzed wheat protein” or “hydrolyzed milk protein,” not just hydrolyzed protein.

What Federal regulation defines what can be listed as a natural flavoring on the meat and poultry label?

On March 1, 1990, FSIS published the final rule, Ingredients That May Be Designated as Natural Flavors, Natural Flavorings, Flavors, or Flavorings When Used in Meat or Poultry Products. The rule did the following:

  • Defined the ingredients, i.e., spices, spice extractives, and essential oils, that may be declared as “natural flavors” or “flavors” on meat and poultry labels.
  • Required more specific listing of certain ingredients. Substances such as dried beef stock, autolyzed yeast, and hydrolyzed proteins must be listed on the label by their common or usual names because their purpose is not just for flavor. They are flavor enhancers, emulsifiers, stabilizers, and binders.
  • Required that the specific source of hydrolyzed protein be indicated on the label, for example, “hydrolyzed soy protein” or “hydrolyzed whey protein.”

Note that the title of the page with this information is “Food Safety: Natural Flavorings on Meat and Poultry Labels,” so I’m not 100% sure this applies to packaged foods like snacks and cereals, too.