A loophole in the FDA's process for evaluating food ingredients—paired with vague ingredient labels and lax oversight—means hardly anyone knows exactly what we're eating. Here's what to know about natural flavor, artificial flavor, spices, and how food and flavor manufacturers hide thousands of food chemicals from consumers and the FDA. 

The problems with ‘flavor’ and ‘spices’ 

The way food tastes and smells is important when it comes to choosing what we eat. Food companies engineer foods to ensure they taste and smell appealing by adding flavors and spices. These can be natural substances or chemicals synthesized in a laboratory. They can be a single ingredient—like vanilla extract, dried basil, or a specific chemical—or blends of many ingredients formulated and developed by professional flavorists. 

One thing all spices and flavors have in common is that food companies do not actually have to tell consumers which of these substances they have added to a food or beverage. Almost all other food ingredients must be explicitly identified by name in the ingredient list found on food packages. However, federal regulations allow the food industry to use the vague catchall terms “artificial flavor,” “natural flavor,” and “spices” instead of identifying each individual flavor substance by name. 

Flavor is a $14 billion global industry with powerhouse trade groups that play outsized roles in dictating which substances are used in our foods. Many factors contribute to the particularly complex problem of flavor: 

The GRAS loophole and industry influence and control 

Food and flavor companies leverage a legal loophole that allows anyone, including companies themselves or industry-paid experts, to declare that a substance is “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, and in effect, bypass U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for new food chemicals (we call this the “GRAS loophole”). Worse yet, food companies do not even have to notify the FDA of their GRAS determinations before or after adding the substances to our foods (we call this pathway within the GRAS loophole “secret GRAS”). The GRAS loophole is widely exploited by the flavor industry, resulting in thousands of flavor substances currently in use that have never been formally deemed safe and approved by the FDA. Because companies can hide these substances behind the terms “natural flavor,” “artificial flavor,” or “spices,” not even the FDA knows which substances have been added to our foods. The only entities who can attest to the safety of those substances are the companies selling them, which is a clear and troubling conflict of interest. Flavor and food companies closely guard their flavor blends as “trade secrets” to prevent competitors from making copycats of their popular foods. In practice, flavor and food companies are the primary entities deciding whether flavor chemicals are safe, not the FDA. 

Learn more about the GRAS loophole: How do new ingredients enter the US food supply? 

Thousands of flavors in hundreds of thousands of foods 

There are thousands of individual substances currently in use as flavors, and one food can contain more than 100 individual flavor substances. Over half of the packaged foods in the U.S.—which is hundreds of thousands of products—contain either added flavor (natural or artificial) and/or spice.

Imprecise food labeling 

The exact same chemical can appear on food labels as a natural flavor or artificial flavor depending on what it is made from. For example, vanillin is the chemical largely responsible for the flavor of vanilla. Vanillin in food can come from vanilla extract—in which case it can be labeled as “natural flavor” or by the name “vanillin”— or it can be synthesized in a lab, in which case it can be labeled as “artificial flavor” or by name. Furthermore, the FDA allows natural flavors to be derived from any natural substance but does not require companies to name that substance. Because of this, in some instances “natural beef flavor” may be derived from plants, where “beef” describes the taste and not the source material. This situation likely causes tremendous consumer confusion. 

Dueling regulatory agencies 

Regulatory jurisdiction over food labeling, like regulation of the underlying foods themselves, is split between two federal agencies, the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The two agencies have different definitions and disclosure requirements for flavors, producing unnecessary confusion around what the terms mean.

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The food industry is capable of disclosing flavors but chooses not to 

While there are many factors to consider when improving regulation for flavors, shifts in disclosure practices are possible. The personal care products industry is a prime example. As with foods, personal care products—like lipstick, shampoo, and lotion—are regulated by the FDA and are currently permitted to use the vague terms “flavor” and “fragrance” in their ingredient lists. Some major personal care product brands have recently begun voluntarily disclosing the composition of their flavor and fragrance ingredients to consumers. Following this trend, California passed a law in 2020 that requires greater flavor and fragrance disclosure in personal care products. The food industry is similarly capable of voluntarily providing full disclosure, yet we have not seen similar trends or commitments in the food industry. 

The FDA is failing to monitor flavor safety 

Federal law obligates the FDA to declare any food chemical shown to cause cancer in humans or animals as unsafe. The FDA has failed to uphold this responsibility. Despite evidence emerging years to decades earlier, the FDA failed to ban seven carcinogenic flavors until 2018. It was only after the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and our partners sued the agency to force them to respond to our coalition’s 2016 petition that the agency finally enacted the ban. The FDA’s sluggish response to these seven substances raises questions and concerns about the FDA’s efforts to monitor the safety of the thousands of other flavors in our food supply. It may surprise some to learn, however, that the seven substances banned by the FDA in 2018 are still present in foods as added flavors. How is that possible? The FDA only banned the synthetic (lab-made) forms of these chemicals. But each of these seven substances occurs in natural products, like herbs, and so can still be added to foods if they come from natural sources. The mere presence of these substances in food does not mean that they pose a major risk to consumers. However, some of these substances belong to a class of chemicals for which no safe dose can be established, meaning any reduction in exposure would be beneficial. In the European Union, limits have been set on the amounts of certain naturally occurring harmful flavors in foods. There is no equivalent to the GRAS loophole in Europe, making EU flavor regulations more protective overall than the FDA’s (although not necessarily perfect). 

Consumers should have the information they need to protect themselves 

Current labeling laws deprive consumers of the information they need to protect themselves from food allergens or identify products aligned with their ethical beliefs (such as vegan products ). Federal law requires allergen labeling for only nine “major allergens,” but at least 59 foods can cause life-threatening allergic reactions. By our assessment, each of these substances can legally be hidden behind the terms “spice” or “natural flavor.” There also appears to be a diverse array of animal-derived substances available for purchase or otherwise greenlit by the FDA or industry, which could also be obscured by the term “natural flavor.” It is quite clear: Consumers need ingredient disclosures to make fully informed decisions about the foods and beverages they buy, serve, and consume. Unfortunately, current federal flavor laws make it impossible for consumers to access that information. 

CSPI’s recommendations for action 

Federal policymakers, state and local policymakers, and industry can each take steps to address safety and transparency concerns around flavors. We recommend the following reforms.

Federal policymakers should: 

  • Mandate full disclosure of flavors and spices (or as a first step, require those using “natural flavor” to specify source materials). 
  • Close the GRAS loophole (or as a first step, end secret GRAS) and increase funds and resources available to the FDA to regulate food chemical safety. 
  • Set maximum levels for toxic substances that occur naturally in spices and natural flavors. 
  • Improve post-market monitoring of food chemicals and develop a comprehensive food chemical database. 
  • Align ingredient disclosure requirements and terminology between FDA- and USDA-regulated foods. 

State and local policymakers should: 

  • Collect and publish information currently kept secret by industry. 
  • Ban dangerous chemicals. 
  • Mandate full disclosure of flavors and spices. 

The food and flavor industries should: 

  • Implement full flavor and spice disclosure. 
  • Stop exploiting the GRAS loophole (or as a first step, stop using the secret GRAS pathway). 

CSPI supports GRAS reform and transparency 

A piece of legislation in consideration in the New York State legislature could reform the way food companies introduce new food ingredients. The bill, S8615/A9295, introduced by NY Assemblymember Dr. Anna Kelles and Senator Brian Kavanagh, would require companies that sell, distribute, or market food products in New York to report all secret GRAS substances to the New York Department of Agriculture—including those hiding inside “natural flavor,” “artificial flavor,” and “spices.” If the bill becomes law, those ingredients and the safety information submitted by the food and beverage industry will be published in a public database, offering a level of transparency into food chemical safety previously unavailable to consumers or even the FDA. 

Food companies and flavor manufacturers should not be allowed to decide in secret what is safe for us to eat. That’s why CSPI is leading efforts to support the GRAS transparency bill in New York state while also working to reform federal laws and regulations to ensure all American consumers are protected from unsafe food chemicals. 

Learn more: Hidden ingredients

How you can help 

We're done playing catch-up with Europe and California. All people in this country deserve access to safe, healthy food that's free of harmful ingredients. Sign our petition to support food safety bills in New York, A6424A/S6055B and A9295/S8615, to prevent dangerous additives from ending up in our food. 

Help us remove harmful additives from our food 

Thomas Galligan (he/him/his), as CSPI’s Principal Scientist for Food Additives and Supplements, is working to improve regulation of food chemicals and dietary supplements and get unsafe chemicals and ineffective supplements out of our food supply.

Support CSPI today

As a nonprofit organization that takes no donations from industry or government, CSPI relies on the support of donors to continue our work in securing a safe, nutritious, and transparent food system. Every donation—no matter how small—helps CSPI continue improving food access, removing harmful additives, strengthening food safety, conducting and reviewing research, and reforming food labeling. 

Please support CSPI today, and consider contributing monthly. Thank you.


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