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. While botanicals, fruits and spices are still used, some blenders use natural 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.'
Natural flavors may or may not include the 'ingredient' of the target flavor. A particular chemical combination may be present in a peach for example, but the same chemical may also be present in other sources such as carrots. A flavor company catalogs the various properties of the raw material, and using different combinations they can achieve new flavor variations. Think of it like mixing different base colors to achieve a new color. The term chemical should not be taken as being bad for you. A standard, raw tea leaf contains over 700 chemicals.
A good way to visualize flavors is some of the extracts found in the grocery store. Almond extract, vanilla extract are the types of products that are used to flavor teas as well as foods. A majority of the natural flavors used in teas are derived from botanical sources. Almost all of these extracts are produced using the distillation method. A quick example is lemon flavoring: lemon rinds are boiled to release their organic compounds. The steam is then collected and reduced into its super concentrated form. If it's just like making whiskey!
How much flavoring is used in tea?
The amount of flavoring needed is minimal—about one 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 1/2 teaspoons or less of actual flavoring per pound.
What about artificial flavors?
Some teas may indicate artificial flavors. Not all artificial flavors are the same. In loose tea, they may use an artificial flavor categorized as 'nature equivalent'. Here is where things get real interesting. In Europe, products with natural equivalent flavors are not considered artificial, whereas in the USA, they are! A natural equivalent flavor means it's the same molecule as what is found in nature, except it is manufactured instead of harvested. Technically water can be manufactured in a lab, and would be considered artificial according to FDA rules.
There are of course highly processed foods with all sorts of non-nature equivalent chemicals. These are generally NOT found in tea.
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 either cause the natural flavor to become unavailable for a long period, or the cost skyrockets. The other issue is that some natural flavors can dissipate quicker than a purer, manufactured form of the flavor. In general natural flavors are usually preferred, but in certain cases a particular flavor may need to be manufactured in order to achieve a desired profile.
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, and some go so far as natural flavors - when it comes to tea, it is not something we feel the need to worry about. Some vendors (mainly mass market) may use both natural and artificial flavors to cover up poor quality tea. Other times its just a botanical or botanical equivalent.
When it comes to tea, the doses are TINY when compared to eating other foods that are either processed or natural but unhealthy.