Do you read labels on the food and beverages you buy? I have to admit that I do read the labels although probably not as much as I should. If you have read labels, I am sure you have come across the word “flavoring” or “flavors”. Sometimes these words will be preceded by other words – “natural” or “artificial”. What do these words mean? Does it even matter? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.
As with so many things, it is our government that defines these terms and the use of them. Their definitions may or may not be of much use to you as they are very wordy and not exactly easy to read and understand. If you wish to read the FDA’s definition of natural and artificial, see this link to the relevant section of the Code of Federal Regulations.
After wading through the government’s definitions, there are some points that can be pulled out.
- Both natural and artificial flavors come from the laboratory. It is just that natural flavors come from plant or animal sources. Artificial flavors can be made from inedible substances. According to a professor at Harvard, natural and artificial flavors may be the same exact molecule. An example given by a spokesperson from the Museum of Food and Drink involves lemon flavor.
“You can have a “natural” lemon flavor made from citral, which is a chemical found in lemon peel. You can also have an “artificial” lemon flavor made from citral, which is processed from petrochemicals. The only difference between these two chemicals is how they were synthesized. Your sensory experience of each will be exactly the same, because they are the same chemical. The most important thing to note is that “natural” citral does not need to come from lemons; it can come from plants like lemongrass and lemon myrtle, which also contain citral. In short, the word “natural” does not necessarily mean a product is better for you, or more sustainable.”
- Both natural and artificial flavorings are added to the food item to obtain the desired flavor. For example, if a lemon-flavored beverage says it contains “water & lemon flavoring”, something was added to it to give the lemon flavor. Contrast that with an ingredient list that says “water and fresh lemon juice”. There, the lemon flavor is derived totally from the juice that is blended into the water.
- Natural and artificial flavors can also be used together to achieve the flavor that consumers want.
- The term “flavoring” does not necessarily mean just one flavor. The FDA does not require food/beverage companies to list each flavor separately although some companies will go to that extra step. For example, the ingredient list for a tea that I have reads “Green tea, Pomegranate Flavor and Acai Flavor”.
- Although there is a difference in origin, there is no nutritional difference between natural and artificial flavors. The nutrition (or lack thereof) in a food comes from the food itself, not added flavor.
To understand this a bit more, let’s delve into what flavor is. What flavor you perceive when eating or drinking a food item is mostly determined by the volatile chemicals in the food. These not only contribute to flavor but also to aroma as smell makes up 80 to 90 percent of the sense of taste. An interesting fact is that a single flavor can consist of 50 to 100 different chemical compounds that might be derived from natural and/or artificial sources. Besides the actual flavor chemicals, flavorings also contain solvents, emulsifiers, flavor modifiers and preservatives. In fact, according to flavor experts, these often make up 80 to 90 percent of the mixture and are called “incidental additives.” The FDA defines these as “present in a food at insignificant levels and do not have any technical or functional effect in that food.” These do not require disclosure on food labels. The manufacturer might use a natural solvent such as ethanol but may also use synthetic solvents such as propylene glycol. An exception to this is that the flavor in “organic foods” must be produced without synthetic solvents, carriers and artificial preservatives.
The people that create flavors are incredibly talented and skilled professionals known as flavorists or flavor chemists. For natural flavors, the specific chemicals are identified and isolated from natural sources, such as essential oils from fruits. A flavorist will use this data to develop a specific flavor profile. Often, flavors are a combination of many different natural ingredients.
For artificial flavors, the flavorist looks at the chemical composition of the natural ingredients and then goes on to create flavor profiles using synthetic ingredients. This artificial flavor can then be added to foods and beverages.
Why create artificial flavors? It is a matter of cost, availability and flexibility. A flavorist at The International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc, uses the example of the flavor of passionfruit. According to her, if a vodka company wanted to use actual passionfruit for a passionfruit flavored beverage, it would require a quarter of the world’s passionfruit supply. That is, obviously, not feasible. So, the flavorists look for more inexpensive sources to create a flavor that mimics the actual fruit. The lab works to identify the molecular fingerprint of the fruit and then they look for similar compounds that are available in the flavor lab. In the case of passionfruit, it might start with grapefruit essential oils and then other tropical fruit oils might be added. The result is “passionfruit flavor”. It is created totally in the lab and may not contain even a gram of real passionfruit. However, it can still be called natural on the label.
Similarly, there are not enough vanilla beans in the world to meet demand for this extremely popular flavor. Also, as you may have noticed if you have recently purchased vanilla beans, their cost is extremely high. However, the compound that gives vanilla its favor profile (vanillin) can be synthetically derived from other sources at a much lower cost with more abundant supply.
So, we see that there is no difference in the flavor we perceive from artificial or natural flavorings and there is no nutritional difference. Is there a difference in safety? According to experts, unless you have an allergy to a specific ingredient, natural and artificial flavors are safe for consumption at intended levels. If you have very specific allergies, this may be a bit difficult as the manufacturer will not list all the chemicals involved in making the flavoring. Just because the intended flavor is banana, that does not mean that there is any banana in the product at all. Rather, it will be composed of many chemicals that when put together create the banana flavor. If you are this type of person, you may need to contact the company or, if possible, avoid any food or beverages with added flavoring.
How do you feel about natural versus artificial flavor? Does it matter to you? Everyone must make their own choice but I hope this article helps you to see it is not as simple a matter as it might seem. Stay tuned as next week, I will discuss all the colors that are added to food!