You’re not alone if you have ever gone to your favorite supermarket and encountered the terms ‘natural flavor’ and ‘artificial flavor’ boldly posted on cakes, ice cream, sweets and so on. What’s a flavor and what makes it natural or artificial? Are there any differences between the two or are marketers and manufacturers laughing all the way to the bank because of your gullibility? The good news is that by the end of this post, you will have a good idea of what goes on behind the labels on your favorite food products.
In the Code of Federal Regulations by the Federal Drug Agency (FDA)1, a natural flavor is defined as follows: “A natural flavor is 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."
On the other hand, artificial flavors have been manufactured using components that do not adhere to the wordy definition in the paragraph above2. In truth, there is very little difference in whether a flavor is natural or artificial since they are both made in a laboratory by a professional known as a flavorist. While the chemicals used to make natural and artificial flavors are the same (they have to be otherwise the flavor would taste differently), their sources are not. Artificial flavors are made using synthetic chemicals while natural flavors are made using chemicals that have to be sourced from the environment.
The scientists allowed to create flavors are known as flavorists (flavor chemists). They are very rare and number close to 500 worldwide3. These scientists have to follow strict FDA and USDA rules for food production for safety purposes4.
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The difference between Natural and Artificial Flavorings
You might be surprised to learn that artificial flavors are simpler and safer than their natural flavoring counterparts. Artificial flavorings are also more affordable than their natural flavor siblings. All this is because highly trained flavorists using synthetic compounds that have been thoroughly vetted by the FDA and USDA are more likely to come up with safer compounds than nature. Nature will not take its chemicals through a vetting process designed to keep humans safe. This means the potential for toxic and harmful chemical compounds abounds in natural flavors. Artificial flavorings are cheaper because they are made in the lab and manufacturers do not have to spend a fortune procuring them from remote places, unlike natural flavorings.
What are the side effects, if any, of natural and artificial flavorings?
As has been discussed above, natural and artificial flavorings are the same thing, with subtle differences in the origin. While natural flavorings are made using chemicals obtained from the natural environment, artificial ones are made using synthetic chemicals made in the lab. While it might be tempting to think that the natural flavorings are better than the artificial ones, it has yet to be proved that they are of higher quality, safer and more cost effective than artificial flavorings. It might even be argued that the precision and safety measures governing the production of the chemical compounds behind artificial flavorings make them better than the natural ones.
The following are our recommendations
Whenever possible, choose fresh food made from scratch that uses whole spices for flavors
• Minimize packaged and processed foods that use artificial OR natural flavorings
• Consider flavorful spices, veggies, and fruits as ways to keep food tasting good
• Go to a spice shop where you can taste different spice mixes and invest in several new spices that excite your taste buds
• Experiment with cooking foods from different ethnicities than you usually eat to mix up flavors and tastes
• Consider adding fresh ginger or turmeric juice, lemon, cucumber, or mint to water for flavored drinks
• Also buy several herbal teas for different flavors and tastes between meals or before bed.
- Flavor Facts. Flavor Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA)http://www.flavorfacts.org
- “The Tastemakers” La Gorce, T. New Jersey Monthly. January 17, 2011.http://njmonthly.com/articles/eat-drink/the-tastemakers/
- The Society of Flavor Chemists. http://flavorchemists.com/