Flavoring tea has been around a long time, and originally flowers and other fragrant botanicals were layered in the tea which readily absorbed their aromas. Jasmine is a classic example. While botanicals, fruits, and spices are still used, some blenders use additional flavors to achieve the desired taste.

What is a natural flavor?

A point of controversy is the term ‘natural flavors’ which have been derided as intentionally misleading by some. Natural flavors is indeed a regulated name by the FDA and is as follows:

‘The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.’

Anything not following the above guidelines would require an artificial flavor label. But the EU has a different set of standards. This excerpt provides an example to make it more clear:

“To make the regulatory complexities more tangible, let us apply the US and EU regulatory variations to vanillin, the molecule that gives vanilla its flavor. This flavor ingredient can be produced in a number of different ways, and the method used to produce it determines whether a natural claim will or will not be allowed.

When vanillin is extracted directly from vanilla beans, both the US and EU regulatory authorities allow a natural claim. When vanilla extract is subjected to fractional distillation to isolate the vanillin component, the labeling on the consumer product may be indicated as ‘natural vanilla flavor’ in the US and Europe.

Vanillin can also be made through different fermentation processes. Fermentation from a starting material such as ferulic acid, allows for the extraction of the vanillin from a variety of natural sources including coffee beans, apple and orange pips, and wheat bran. If vanillin is made using the ferulic acid fermentation process, a ‘natural flavor’ claim can still be made in both the US and Europe. If the vanillin is produced through fermentation from another source, for example guaiacol, the labeling of the products begin to differ. In the US, if the process is not approved the material is labeled as both ‘artificial’ or ‘synthetic,’ whereas in the EU the material may still be labeled as ‘natural’.

Other starting materials can also be converted to vanillin by chemical processes – for example, lignin can be heated with an alkali and an oxidation agent to create a synthetic (or artificial) version of vanillin. In this case, the product would be labeled in both the US and Europe as ‘artificial’ or ‘synthetic’ vanillin.

Finally, there is the molecule ethyl vanillin that is not found in nature and is typically produced using synthetic chemistry. The US label claim would be ‘artificial vanilla flavor’ but in Europe, the label claim is ‘vanilla flavoring’. The absence of the word natural in Europe implies that it is an artificial flavor.”

To top it off, another vanilla flavor substitute is Castoreum, which is a secretion of the anal glands and castor sacs of beavers. Even though usage of the flavoring is rare, it is technically considered a natural flavor. 

There you have it. A simple flavor like Vanilla has a lot of variations, so simply relying on a label and the word natural gives you only half the story.

Natural Flavors in Tea

Of course, tea is an ideal complement for natural flavors. The amount of flavoring needed is minimal-about a teaspoon per pound. A large portion of that is ethyl alcohol, which is used as a carrying agent (as it evaporates, the flavor is carried through the tea via the evaporating alcohol). The flavor and the alcohol are water-soluble, so water is used to combine the two. In all, once the alcohol and water evaporate, you are looking at minuscule amounts of flavor.

While natural flavors in tea are typically botanical, it doesn’t always mean that 100% of a particular botanical is used in a tea. So as an example, a pineapple tea may include pineapple flavors, but it might also include carrot, strawberry, or whatever other ‘natural’ flavors a blender decides to use.

To be concluded in Natural and Artificial Flavors – Part Two

Photo “Madagascar bourbon vanilla” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License to the photographer “Yardensachs” and is being posted unaltered (source)
Photo “Exotic Fruits” is copyright under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License to the photographer “romanov” and is being posted unaltered (source)

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