Terms like "natural" versus "artificial" flavors are murky when it comes to food labeling. While the FDA outlines how the word "artificial" must be used to describe certain ingredients, it only allows use of the term "natural" to apply to flavors. It does not regulate "natural" as it appears elsewhere on food packaging, such as in claims like "all natural."
Definition of Natural
The FDA defines "natural flavors" or "natural flavoring" in an ingredients list as any substance that is extracted, distilled or otherwise derived from plant or animal matter. It may be produced either directly from the matter itself, or after it has been roasted, heated or fermented. In some cases, the end product may be far from what you would consider natural.
There are two different ways that "natural" may appear on food labels. If all the ingredients of the flavor are derived from a single source, such as a kiwi fruit, the flavor can be labeled as "kiwi flavor, natural." If the flavor is derived from multiple sources of natural flavors, however, the flavor must be labeled as "kiwi flavor WONF, natural." WONF stands for "with other natural flavors." The use of the word "natural" in this instance only means that the flavor was derived from natural sources, not that the flavor of the product is derived only from real kiwi fruit. It is possible under FDA regulations to use chicken to flavor beef ravioli and list only "natural" flavors on the label.
The FDA does not require manufacturers to list detailed information on the source or type of natural flavors used in the ingredients. In many instances, the label will only list "natural flavors" without stating what these flavors are or where they come from. Natural flavors, as long as they meet the FDA definition standards, can still be additives. Soy sauce, for instance, is one of the most common "natural flavors" found on ingredient lists. In addition, all flavorings, whether natural or artificial, are man-made. Scientists must blend, distill, or extract chemical compounds to produce flavor additives, whether their source is considered natural or artificial.