If you look at ingredient lists from some of the most popular "health food" products out there - RX Bar, La Croix, Kodiak Cakes, Honey Stinger, Clif Bar, KIND, to name a few - you'll notice a recurring ingredient: "natural flavors". While "natural flavors" sound well, natural, it turns out there's more than meets the eye (and not in the good way).
What are "natural flavors"?
The original sources of "natural flavors" are plant and animal compounds as compared to "artificial flavors", which rely on synthetic compounds. Although natural flavors are natural in origin, these flavors require a high degree of processing. Solvents, preservatives, anti-caking agents, etc. are commonly used in the extraction process and do not have to be listed in the ingredients according to the FDA because they are 'incidental additives'.
Why are they used?
In short, using natural flavors is an inexpensive way to impart a distinct and consistent flavor into a product without having to use the real thing.
So what's the conclusion?
Natural flavors can be additive-free but it's hard to know when that's the case. It all depends on the extraction process, and because companies don't have to list any "incidental additives", the natural flavors world has become a bit of a black box for consumers.
Because it's so difficult to be sure you're not consuming unwanted additives, consumers are beginning to push back and companies are slowly responding. Spindrift and Simple Mills, for example, have made explicit commitments not to use natural flavors. Brave has done the same.
While we're not above drinking a La Croix here or there, we try to limit how often we are consuming unknown ingredients.