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 to 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’. As mentioned above, a natural flavor has to come from a natural source. There are times when the cost of the natural source skyrockets. The natural equivalent is re-creating the molecule exactly how it is found in nature except it is made in a lab.
A good analogy is Star Trek. Captain Picard would ask for an ‘Earl Grey .. Hot’. The replicator took energy and re-converted into matter, re-creating the exact chemical properties of Earl Grey tea instantly. Nobody is certain what sort of regulatory authorities exist in the federation, but technically that tea would be considered artificial by the FDA today.
Non-natural equivalent artificial flavors are those which do not exist in nature and are entirely designed and produced in a lab. The FDA requires ‘nature equivalent’ to be marked as artificial. This can confuse people because often you will see the term ‘natural and artificial flavors’ without knowing which artificial version it is. For the most part, the non-nature equivalent versions are the cheapest. For the most part, most tea that says artificial flavors is using the nature equivalent. Bottled teas or mass market products would probably have a higher probability of containing the pure artificial stuff. In either case, a good tea vendor would be able to let you know.