Unfortunately, “Natural Flavors” aren’t as “natural” as the name would imply. Since the FDA doesn’t currently monitor the term (like it does with “Organic”), “Natural Flavors” has a very broad definition. Technically, it just can’t contain artificially manufactured ingredients. However, it can contain processed ingredients just so long as they aren’t “artificially” based, so flavor enhancers or preservatives can count as “Natural Flavors”. And the label doesn’t have to call out the specifics of what makes up the “Natural Flavors” so long it is less than 2% of the food content (but allergens do need to be noted).
There are a few other common terms and items that can also be misleading:
Packaging – chemicals that are only in the packaging do not have to be specified on the label. (i.e. “BPA FREE” is now called out because of the risks that have been associated with BPA, but before it was called out, few people had any idea that BPA was in every can and plastic container, and that it was leaching into the food. And to make a twist to the BPA story, it actually turns out that “BPA Free” isn’t an improvement over containing BPA…) Microwave popcorn is also particularly concerning – if you read the label, it states what is in the bag (i.e. “100% Organic Popcorn Kernels”), but not anything about the bag itself, and it turns out that the chemicals in the bag can be toxic (they not only leach onto the popcorn as it is popped in the microwave, but they are also inhaled by anyone in the area when the bag is opened).
Organic – And what does “Organic” really mean? The FDA monitors the term, but the farmer actually pays for the inspector to certify their food, not the FDA. And it really just means that no pesticides were used or antibiotics were fed, but it doesn’t specify what was used or what exactly was fed….
Free Range – Organic Eggs must be cage-free and free range, but all that means is that they aren’t in cages. If the farm is just following the letter of the law, the chickens could be in a stuffed hen house with an open window…. Pasture Raised seems to be the only term that is genuine, but it is not verified by the FDA and usually only small farms can really pull this off (raising the chicken on a pasture the way you would envision chickens being raised).
Since we can’t all live on farms and grow all of our own food, we have to rely on others, even for “whole foods” such as eggs…. All that can be done is to not take any label at face value, examine the list of ingredients, and be aware of packaging… View all the information you have as a starting point and make the best choices from there.