When reading an ingredients list on everyday snacks and grocery items like crackers and cookies, you may not recognize most of the items. Some, like niacin, soy lecithin, or inverse cane syrup, seem fairly "real."

Then you keep reading and you see "natural and artificial flavors" at the bottom of the list. These words could mean anything. What kind of natural flavors? What kind of artificial flavors? What are these flavors even at all? 

beer, coffee
Julianna Lee

While there are some scary connotations to these terms, let's get the facts straight.

The Code of Federal Regulations has a long definition as for what natural flavors is, ending with "products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional." Essentially though, they are chemicals. 

You would be surprised to hear how common they are too. "natural and artificial flavors" are listed on products from cereals to granola bars to gum to even the beloved Girl Scout Cookies.

beer, cake
Julianna Lee

While you may think natural flavors are better than artificial ones if trying to be "healthy" according to CNN, they're not that different from one another. Natural flavors are not safer nor better in quality than artificial flavors. 

The only difference between the two are that natural flavors come from natural sources rather than being human-made synthetic substances. Still, both are chemicals that have been extracted or made and then injected into your food. These flavorings can have from 50 up to 100 ingredients.

Some of the most common chemicals included in this list are methyl salicylate (to intensify gum's wintergreen flavor), glutamic acid (a general flavor enhancer), and citric acid (to add a sour or tart flavor to a product, especially those that are fruit related). 

These so called "flavors" are essentially the taste in the product, replacing an element that's lost in processing, storage, or even pasteurizing. By adding them, companies can ensure uniformity in their products and provide the same great taste throughout the whole year, irregardless of whether another one of the ingredients is in season or not.

beer, tea, wine, coffee
Julianna Lee

The chemicals in these natural and artificial flavors vary depending on the products' flavors. Although the amount of preservatives and solvents used in these "flavors" is too small to be correlated to health effects, they still cannot be clearly defined as to what they are. 

Thus there is no really one answer to say what these flavors are besides chemicals. In order to unveil each label's truth behind this generic term, you have to call the company to find out, specific to the each product. 

If you're really trying to be healthy, stick to whole foods like fruits and vegetables. The only ingredients on an apple list is an apple. Nothing from a chemistry lab there.