Even though the words “natural” and “artificial” are pretty straight-forward when used in a conversation, things are not as simple in the food and beverage industry. Natural and artificial flavors can increase or reduce the fan base of a certain brand solely because of what these terms commonly mean. Artificial flavorings have been the subject of controversy for decades, but few that support or blame them know what they really are.
Here are some basics about flavorings: what they are, how they are made, how safe they are, and how to stay informed.
What Is Artificial Flavor?
To understand what artificial flavors are, we need to first take a look at natural flavors first.
Natural flavors are substances extracted from spices, fruits, vegetables, yeast, herbs, leaves, buds, bark, roots, meat & other animal products, etc. In short and quite intuitively, natural flavors derive from a natural source, be it a plant or animal. They can be essential oils, oleoresins, essences, extractives, distillates, or the product of cooking or processing in any way.
Artificial flavors are substances which impart flavor in a food or beverage and which do not derive from the natural sources mentioned above. They are created in labs and processing plants from scratch, synthesized from other artificial products and chemicals.
Although not classified by the FDA, there’s another type of flavoring: the nature-identical flavoring. Synthesized or isolated from artificial sources, but chemically and organically identical to natural flavors. Such an example might be citral, a chemical which you can find in lemon peel, lemongrass, or lemon myrtle. It can be synthesized from these natural sources, but it can also be created from petrochemicals. The final products are structurally identical and impossible to distinguish. At the moment, the FDA labels them as artificial.
Ok, But How Are Artificial Flavors Created?
Flavorists use scientific knowledge, research, and creativity to permanently develop new flavors as simply and cheaply as safely possible. They receive briefs containing the flavor they seek, what they will use it for, and other requirements they might have (for example, to also include coloring). Flavorists mix synthetic aroma compounds to create artificial flavoring.
In isolated cases, a single compound is enough to provide a flavor. Such examples might include vanillin and ethyl vanillin (artificial vanilla flavors), or ethyl methylphenylglycidate (artificial strawberry flavor).
Most of the time, customers will provide multiple sessions of feedback until their desires are met. Depending on each customer’s requirements, scientists might also add chemicals that protect the flavoring from high temperatures or other substances.
Are Artificial Flavors Dangerous for Consumption?
Many consumers tend to stay away from artificial flavoring. However, just because an ingredient is natural it doesn’t mean it’s healthy, or even safe. Nature-identical flavors, for example, only differ from natural ones in their manufacturing process. Thus, consuming them does not pose any extra danger from consuming a product with the flavor extracted from natural products.
Take almond flavor for example. The natural version can contain cyanide since it is common in almonds. But its artificial counterpart does not pose such threats. Artificial flavors, on the other hand, go through testing before being approved for consumption. Therefore, it is safe to say that artificial flavors are safer than natural ones, right?
Well, not quite. Humans and animals have consumed natural flavors for thousands of years, which sort of makes them safe. Artificial ones, however, go only a few decades back. But at the same time, plants and animals have hybridized over the years. In fact, few – if any – are genetically identical to their ancestors from a few hundreds or thousands of years ago. A natural product or flavor does not always mean a healthier and more sustainable one, too.
Those who are sensitive or have food allergies should stay away from natural and nature-identical flavors since many of them can also contain allergens. Vegetarians and vegans should only consume products with artificial flavors since natural ones might also include animal byproducts.
What About the Environment?
It’s difficult to assert which flavorings are easier on our surroundings. In some cases, like with vanilla, require lengthy and difficult extraction processes for the natural flavor. This also affects the delicate environment in which the vanilla orchids live. With other artificial flavorings, though, the reduced production costs do not justify the damage to water, soil, and air.
Where can I See What Artificial Flavors Are in My Food?
Both natural and artificial flavorings are mentioned on the food’s label, container, and/or wrapper. For foods that do not come packaged, sellers need to make sure the information is available in their stores. But if the food contains artificial flavoring that mimics or enhances the product’s characterizing flavor (for example, artificial cherry flavoring in cherry jam), the company should mention this on the label’s display panel.
However, the FDA does not require food processing companies to list the exact flavors they use. Simply mentioning that the product contains “natural and artificial flavors” or something similar is enough. The only exception to this rule addresses those who manufacture or mass produce spices or flavors. For more information on labeling natural and artificial flavorings, you can check the official FDA data on this matter.
Generally, artificial flavoring is neither worse nor better than its natural counterpart – especially when talking about nature-identical flavoring. In fact, there are cases where natural flavors show higher toxicity levels than artificial ones. However, there still are a few suspicions regarding their toxicity which you should not take lightly.