Flavoring tea is a process almost as old as tea itself, 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 version 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.
What about artificial flavors in tea?
Then there are artificial flavors, and it is a tendency to look at them negatively. However, not all artificial flavors are the same. I'm sure most people think of some giant vat of toxic chemicals that dissolve metal as the basis for anything labeled 'artificial'. However, in loose tea, most blenders will use an artificial flavor categorized as 'nature identical'. Here is where things get real interesting. In Europe, products with nature identical flavors are not labeled as artificial, but cannot use the term natural flavor. A nature identical flavor means it's the same molecule as what is found in nature, except it is isolated or synthesized to produce the equivalent compound. In the US, nature identical is considered artificial. The term 'nature identical' is also no longer used in Europe, probably because some companies took the liberty of putting NATURE all over the box, confusing customers.
Artificial flavors, and those that need to be labeled as such in EU standards are compounds that do not exist in nature. There are regulations regarding which chemicals can be used, but FDA labeling requirements doesn't differentiate between these types or nature equivalents.
But it's important to note the following - many modern medicines are highly refined extracts from botanical sources, and if they were considered food nearly all would be artificial. Pond water is 'natural' and some have even tried selling 'raw' water (i.e. unfiltered) which is Natural, but selling combining hydrogen and oxygen in a lab would be considered artificial.
Allergens in tea
The next question would be related to allergies. How would you know if a teas natural flavor contains allergens? Like most foods, major food allergens would be listed on the label (i.e. nuts, eggs, dairy, wheat). However there are no rules or guidelines that require every single molecule used to be included in natural flavors.
While the umbrella of potential ingredients for most foods is very large and could contain various allergens - when it comes to tea the list is much much smaller. In fact, nearly all the natural flavors in tea are botanical, most of them are derived from fruits. If you have severe allergies, some may recommend avoiding anything with natural flavors. This is because most companies do not want to have a liability for things they have no control over. But common sense will also say that Earl Grey tea doesn't contain onion molecules.
Why would tea blenders use artificial flavors?
In reality, some types of natural flavors can get very expensive. And there have been instances where supply crunches cause the natural flavor to become unavailable. The other issue is that some natural flavors can dissipate quicker than more pure, manufactured versions. In other cases, a particular natural flavor may simply not be available that has the taste a blender is looking for. Sometimes, an artificial 'nature equivalent' flavor is used to complement a natural flavor - so a blender will use a combination of both, just like a beer brewer will use different types of hops for flavor and aroma.
What to do?
Chemicals exist all around us, both man-made and natural, and both can be toxic. So while the knee jerk reaction is to shun ANYTHING with artificial flavors when it comes to tea, look at it this way - you can get a pure, nature identical flavor added to a tea or eat a conventionally grown strawberry which can theoretically have way more contaminants. Some blenders (mainly mass market) may use artificial flavors to cover up poor quality tea, which can have more chemical residue from pollution or herbicide. Therefore, it's worth scrutinizing the source of your tea.
There are those that will lump in both natural flavors and artificial flavors as bad for you. For a new tea drinker, flavored tea is often an alluring reason to drink tea, especially if you are coming off coffee or a sugary soft drink. Virgin tea drinkers will not always have the palate for plain tea. But most tea, regardless if it's flavored is a better option than more harmful drinks such as energy and soft drinks.
Dosing is always the main issue. The term natural doesn't also doesn't mean healthy. It is a balance between the health benefits and any potential side effects. There are some that shun flavoring in any way because 'the doses are much higher than what is found in nature'. However, there is not a lot in the way of clinical evidence that avoiding these flavors helps you live longer. After all, the overall diet needs to be considered in totality. Many plants contain natural toxins.
In general, the loose tea market is very selective, and most blenders care a lot about what goes into the tea. The use of artificial flavors in general is very minimal and used only when there are no natural alternatives. Most blenders (in fact all that we spoke to) all use natural equivalents in any instance where a natural flavor is not used.