Natural Flavors and IBS

Medically Reviewed by Onikepe Adegbola, MD PhD, Founder Casa de Sante, the gut health brand

If you suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), then you know how challenging it can be to find foods that don't trigger your symptoms. Even when you do find something that helps, it doesn't mean you need to keep eating the same bland and boring meals every single day - that's where natural flavors come into play.

Natural flavors come from food sources like fruits, vegetables and spices and can add delicious taste and variety to your meals without the risk of aggravating IBS symptoms. In this blog series we'll explore the world of natural flavors and how they can benefit you in managing your IBS symptoms. From tasty seasoning blends to unique ingredient combinations we'll share recipes and tips to help you expand your palate and savor food again. So if you're ready to discover all that natural flavors have to offer and take control over your IBS symptoms, let's dive right in!

What are natural flavors, and what is the process for creating them?

Natural flavors are ingredients used to flavor packaged foods and beverages that come from plant or animal material manipulation, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While there have been claims that natural flavors may be added to food and drinks in an attempt to make them addictive, research has yet to definitively prove this claim. It's clear that food companies have an incentive to make their items as delicious as possible in order to keep customers coming back for more.

A variety of materials including spices, fruit or fruit juice, vegetables or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herbs, bark, buds, roots, leaves or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, and fermentation products are subjected to heating, enzyme extraction, fermentation, or other manipulations to create natural flavors.

    How do natural flavors differ from artificial flavors?

    Natural and artificial flavors both impart flavor to food and beverages without adding nutritional value; however, the primary distinction between them is that artificial flavors come from chemically synthesized substances while natural ones come from plants and animals.

    Natural flavors, though derived from "natural sources," must still go through the same processing steps as artificial flavors and may contain unwanted chemical additives known as "incidental additives." According to EWG estimates, natural flavors contain up to 80-90% chemical additives - creating a potential issue for those with food sensitivities who are particularly sensitive to such things. Food manufacturers must list their ingredients on labels; flavor manufacturers aren't required to disclose which plant or animal material their flavors come from nor any of their additives present in natural flavorings.

    It is worth noting that the FDA has yet to establish a formal definition for "natural." As such, natural flavors used in food and beverages may not be as harmless as they appear; in fact, they could very well be similar to artificial ones. On the other hand, certified organic foods follow more stringent regulations and thus offer more of a "pure" option for those concerned about additives.

    Overall, natural flavors are commonly employed in the food and beverage industry. Unfortunately, those with food allergies or intolerances should be wary of natural flavors; thus, it's essential to read labels carefully and select products which are safe and suitable for your requirements.

    What foods have natural flavors?

    Many foods and beverages can contain natural flavors. You can find flavored seltzer, soda, sports drinks and yogurt as well as ice cream, chocolate, cookies, cakes, chips, crackers and protein bars. Also, you can find protein powders, protein bars, protein bars, protein powders and pasta sauces.

    Should you avoid them? 

    Although natural flavors can be enjoyed in moderation, it is worth considering alternatives if they are an integral part of your daily diet. Natural flavors do not have to be listed on food labels so some naturally flavored products might not be safe to eat for people with severe food allergies. This is especially true if you have rare food allergies. You may be able to contact the food company directly if you are in this group or if you have a therapeutic diet. You can ask about the source of the natural flavors and what additives they contain. You can also be cautious and avoid beverages and foods containing natural flavor.

    Natural flavors are usually derived from plants, but it is possible to get natural flavors from animal products. People who are vegetarian or vegan should avoid natural flavors and inquire about the origin of natural flavorings before they consume a naturally flavored product.

    Finally, people following the low FODMAP elimination phase and those who avoid fructans during the maintenance phase should be careful when eating savory foods with natural flavors. Natural flavors can indicate onions or garlic powder, depending on which food item. Both of these foods are high in fructans. Fructans, which are carbohydrates that can be highly fermented by our intestinal bacteria, may cause gastrointestinal symptoms in IBS patients. Foods containing less than 2% natural flavors are considered low FODMAP. This is because the amount of a high-FODMAP ingredient will likely not have an impact on GI symptoms.

    These are some tips to avoid them

    Natural flavors can be difficult to avoid as they are a common food additive and could even be hidden in "health foods" with minimal processing.

    Natural flavors can be avoided by consuming foods that are not packaged. It is important to read all ingredient labels before you buy packaged food.

    The bottom line

    Natural flavors are not much different than artificial flavors, despite what their names suggest. Natural flavors are safe for the general population. However, people with severe food allergies, sensitivities or other dietary restrictions should avoid eating foods and beverages that contain natural flavors. It is worth doing your own research to determine if the food or drink is safe to eat. You can also review the ingredient lists on food labels to reduce your intake of natural flavorings, or even avoid them altogether.

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