What is Natural Flavor and is it Good for My Dog?

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As we are up to the letter “N” in our dog food ingredient series, today we are writing about the ubiquitous and ambiguous “Natural Flavor”.

Natural flavors stamp

What is Natural Flavor?

Natural flavor is a flavoring additive that is present in many pet foods and treats. Even though natural flavors sound perfectly healthy, unfortunately, it is hard to know exactly what this ingredient really is.

For an idea of what a natural flavor is, the FDA website says:

With respect to flavors, pet foods often contain “digests,” which are materials treated with heat, enzymes and/or acids to form concentrated natural flavors. Only a small amount of a “chicken digest” is needed to produce a “Chicken Flavored Cat Food,” even though no actual chicken is added to the food. Stocks or broths are also occasionally added. Whey is often used to add a milk flavor. Often labels will bear a claim of “no artificial flavors.” Actually, artificial flavors are rarely used in pet foods.

According to current labeling rules, dog food companies are allowed to consider these natural flavors proprietary, and are not required to disclose exactly what is used to make the flavoring nor how it is actually made (i.e., via a chemical process).


Common names for Natural Flavor

In dog food, this ingredient is either referred to generically as in “natural flavors”, or slightly more specifically by mention of the flavor source, as in “natural chicken flavor”, “natural pork flavor”, “natural turkey flavor”, or “natural fish flavor”, to name some of the most common ones.


Why is Natural Flavor in Dog Food?

As the name implies, natural flavor is a dog food ingredient that is used to enhance the taste of the food.


Is Natural Flavor Commonly Used in Dog Food?

Unfortunately, natural flavor is very common in dog food. The ingredient “natural flavor” is present in almost 38 % of all dog foods. Specific varieties of natural flavor (e.g. natural chicken flavor, natural pork flavor) are present in another 10% of all dog foods. Thus, some form of natural flavor is added to virtually one-half of all dog foods.


Common Benefits or Risks of Natural Flavor

The only benefit of having natural flavors in your pet’s food is, allegedly, that it will taste better to the dog so that they will actually eat the food. Of course, if a food already contains real named proteins and fruits and vegetables, it would seem that those ingredients would be sufficient to make the food palatable to your pooch.


There are two main problems with natural flavor in dog food. First of all, in most cases, there is no mention of the source of those flavors. They could be chicken based, pork based, or from any other long list of ingredients. This is problematic if your pet has a known food allergy. You simply can’t know if that food contains the allergen or not.

Crazy scientist mixes two liquids in his laboratory
Secondly, you have no idea as to the quality of the source of the natural flavor. As mentioned on the FDA site, animal digest is commonly used to extract the natural flavor. What exactly is digest? The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) says that digest is produced by the chemical or enzymatic hydrolysis of clean animal tissue that has not undergone decomposition. These animal tissues may not include hair, horns, teeth, hooves, and feathers, with the exclusion of trace amounts that are unavoidable even after acceptable processing methods.


Essentially, you have an ingredient that could be made up of who knows what, and possibly created using harsh chemicals or acids.


Slimdoggy Ingredient Comfort Level

slimdoggy frownDue to the fact that it is most often vague in terms of its source and extraction process, we give natural flavor the SlimDoggy frown. The only saving grace on this ingredient is that it is often found fairly far down on the ingredient list (rarely in the top 10), which minimizes its impact on the diet.


Miscellaneous facts about Natural Flavor

Sadly, many processed human foods also include an ingredient called natural flavor. Here is the FDA’s definition as it relates to human food:

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.


Oh my!


Sources and further reading



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  1. Some things are so confusing. When you see words like natural you assume that natural > comes from nature > pure > safe.

    This isn’t always true though as you’ve mentioned

  2. Interesting. Both of the foods we feed our dogs have that in the first 10 ingredients yet both got good ratings on a couple of different ratings sites.

    • Our SlimDoggy rankings also will have some foods with very high rank even if they include natural flavor as in ingredient. We have not yet decided to lower a rank because of this ingredient (like we do with some other dubious ingredients), although we might do so in the future.
      steve recently posted…What is Natural Flavor and is it Good for My Dog?My Profile

  3. Thanks for adding the FDA description of natural flavors for human food at the end. When I started reading, that was my first question. It’s a good reminder that regulations for human food are not always better than regulations for pet food.
    Pamela recently posted…Do We Always Have To Judge?My Profile

  4. It never ceases to amaze me how companies can use these words to basically manipulate (for lack of better term) peoples minds!
    |ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!
    Jenna,Mark “HuskyCrazed” Drady recently posted…Do our pets enjoy Halloween?.My Profile

  5. The FDA description of natural flavor pretty much sums it up…could be almost anything. I’m so glad there are more and more healthy alternatives on the market for feeding our dogs and more people are moving towards home-prepared meals for their dogs.
    Elaine recently posted…Do You Treat Your Dog Like a Human?My Profile

  6. This is kinda scary. TW always axs Pop why his flavored seltzer that’s supposed to be healthy has “natural flavor” in it rather than the fruit it’s supposed to taste like.

  7. Mom has always wondered what is up with that natural flavor ingredient. I guess it is just a mystery most of the time and that isn’t really a good thing.
    Emma recently posted…GBGV Chefs Bake Halloween CookiesMy Profile

  8. Ugh, so confusing. I do notice that lots of the treats and dog food labels I look at include “natural flavors.” Some of the food I buy for myself also includes “natural flavors” and I’m like, what the heck does that mean?
    Lindsay recently posted…Are you teaching your dog NOT to come when called?My Profile

  9. Yes, you would think that the natural flavor would be the actual flavors of the meats, fruits, and veggies. If it a natural flavors, it must not have naturally great tasting ingredients! BOL!
    M. K. Clinton recently posted…An Act of Dog ~ Museum of CompassionMy Profile

  10. That word listed in food ingredients always makes me frown for the exact reasons you shared. I’m thinking (at first glance) “all natural” but that’s not always the case. I find it even more scarier with dog food because it’s unchartered water for me most of the time. Thanks for the post Slim…

  11. This was a interesting post, thanks for filling us in, indeed kinda scary.
    Sand Spring Chesapeakes recently posted…Wordless Wednesday~My New Fur FriendMy Profile

  12. I knew natural flavor was not a good thing in human food, and I recently saw it on a pet treat ingredient and wondered about that too. Thanks for covering the topic and clearing that up!
    Jan K recently posted…Wordless Wednesday – Birthday BestMy Profile

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