In one of those naked PR moves, Nestlé announced today it would only use natural flavorings and colors in its candy. Which means it's a good time to remember that is "natural" does not mean better. The natural stuff is just as processed, and comes from places like beaver butts and insects.
There's nothing inherently wrong with natural flavorings, and dyes that come from less-than-savory animal parts—unless you're a strict vegetarian. But castoreum (the vanilla flavor from beaver butts) and Natural Red 4 (red dye from squashed scale insects) are good checks on our visceral reactions to words like "natural" and "artificial."
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration has strict definitions for natural and artificial flavors. The short explanation is that natural flavors are derived from plant or animal material, while artificial flavors are synthesized by chemists in a lab.
"Natural" may evoke those idyllic images of leisurely roasted coffee beans or hand-chopped strawberries, but nope, full stop. It's all chemists in a lab. Extracting pure flavor molecules from food requires solvents and preservatives. Natural and artificial flavorings alike can contain dozens of ingredients that aren't listed in final packaging. Those ingredients do have to come from the FDA's Generally Recognized As Safe list, which is exactly as the name implies.
And a natural flavoring doesn't have to correspond with its natural ingredient. There's an entire category called WONF, or With Other Natural Flavors. Raspberry flavor, for example, can be enhanced with strawberry, jasmine, and orris root. What you taste is not what you get.
None of this is a big secret. Natural flavorings are an issue that manage to unite the crunchiest of the crunchy with the people who like to shake their heads at crunchy hippies. Here's even Food Babe, the woman perhaps most (in)famous for getting the "yoga mat chemical" out of Subway bread, going on a tear about natural flavors.
We can all do with less processed food. But let's not pretend that swapping in natural flavors in a chocolate bar makes it any better.
Top: Photo of a Lion bar via Nestlé