"Natural flavoring" is a vague and potentially misleading ingredient listed on many dog foods. Though many ingredients that fall into this category may be harmless, others may be less than healthy for your dog. Likewise, it is important to remember that natural flavoring does not guarantee the food is either healthy or all-natural. In actuality, the contrary is most likely true.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials is the governing body that determines the definition of ingredients on dog food. AAFCO defines natural flavoring as "materials treated with heat, enzymes and/or acids to form concentrated natural flavors." It also insists that any natural ingredient must be obtained from an organic source such as plant or animal material. However, AAFCO does not specifically determine what plant or animal material can be used, opening the door for potentially unhealthy and unsavory ingredients.
Common Natural Flavors
In many cases the natural flavor used in dog food comes in the form of meat broths or grains steeped in water. The flavoring is then dehydrated and condensed for use in the processing of canned and dry foods. The difficulty with these ingredients is that dog food companies are allowed to label them as proprietary, and accordingly are not required to disclose exactly what is used to make the flavoring. This can be a significant problem if your dog has a food allergy or other sensitivity.
Digest and Waste
AAFCO also states that "animal digest" is a natural flavoring. This means that dog food companies can potentially flavor their foods with stomach contents, the water from boiled waste products, and other unsavory and even unhealthy sources. Much like the phrase "animal byproduct," "natural flavor" was once an ingredient category that allowed for nutritionally appropriate seasoning. It has now become an avenue for including or hiding subpar ingredients.
When choosing a food for your dog, read the ingredients carefully. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to tell exactly what animal or plant each ingredient is sourced from. Be cautious of vague terms such as "flavoring" or "meat," as these can come from many different sources and may not be consistent between bags of food.
Shelly Volsche has worked as a professional dog behavior consultant, holds a Bachelor's degree in psychology, and a diploma in canine nutrition. She has written for "The Chronicle of the Dog" and Lucky Dog Magazine and is currently pursuing her PhD in anthropology with a focus on pet parents.