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Natural Flavors and Artificial Flavors

Your sense of smell contributes to 80% of what you taste. Hold your nose and try tasting something. You probably can’t taste it very well. Now open it. Now you can detect all the flavor! Science tells us that humans can detect five distinct types of taste: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami.

Everyday people all over the world are consuming flavor. I am not just talking about the five distinct types of taste. I am talking about “natural” and “artificial” flavors. I am talking about the added flavoring you see in the back of your food packaging. What are these flavors, and are they good or bad (hint: they are not bad)? Isn’t that all the conversation these days? Well, you’re reading the right article because I make a lot of these flavors every day and have worked in the flavor & fragrance industry for over 6 years. So let us find out the TRUTH. What actually is a flavor?

What is a Natural Flavor or Artificial Flavor?

Natural and artificial flavors are both used to enhance the taste of food and beverages, but they differ in their sources and production methods.

  1. Natural Flavors:
    • Source: Derived from plants, animals, or microorganisms.
    • Production: Extracted through traditional processes such as distillation, fermentation, or extraction.
    • Example: Vanilla extract obtained from vanilla beans, citrus flavors from fruit peels, or mint flavor from mint leaves.
  2. Artificial Flavors:
    • Source: Chemically synthesized compounds created to mimic the taste of natural flavors.
    • Production: Created through chemical processes using various synthetic compounds.
    • Example: Artificial strawberry flavor created using a combination of chemicals to imitate the taste of real strawberries.

In terms of safety, both natural and artificial flavors undergo rigorous testing to ensure they meet safety standards set by regulatory agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Some people may have preferences for natural flavors due to the perception that they are more “natural” or “healthier,” but the safety of a flavoring substance is not solely determined by its source. It’s important to note that the term “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it hasn’t undergone some processing or alteration.

In order to talk more about “artificial” or “natural” flavors, we have to understand why we flavor a product. A few reasons include cost, sustainability, freshness, flavor impact, and flavor creation. There is a huge demand for healthy products that call for less fat, less sugar, less salt, and more protein. With these demands, there comes an impact on how our foods taste. To accommodate consumers, we use added flavoring to counterbalance the impact these demands have on food products. Flavoring is how vegan alternative foods can taste like non-vegan food.

How do Flavorists create flavors?

There are over 350 identified volatile compounds that make up a strawberry. To create a strawberry flavor in the lab, a Willy Wonka or flavorist (someone who is trained and certified by the Society of Flavor Chemists) might choose some of these compounds and formulate them together to give you that “creamy” or “green” strawberry note our customers are looking for in their products.

As a flavorist assistant, I use these chemicals every day. At the dosage that these flavors are added to your food, it is safe to consume in your food products. Most of these compounds are already naturally found in strawberries.

Natural is not so “Natural”

“Natural” is probably not what you think it is, and it is probably a far cry from what you would expect. If you think it is freshly squeezed orange juice concentrate, think again. According to the FDA, natural means:

“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 include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants listed in subpart A of part 582 of this chapter and the substances listed in § 172.510 of this chapter.”

So let me give you a clearer picture. Remember how I said that there are 350 identified volatile compounds in a strawberry? Well, we can synthesize those compounds in a lab or derive them from a natural source. Either way, your body does not recognize the difference. Neither one is more harmful or better for you. What is nutritional in the food does not come from the flavor.

If we were to create a strawberry-flavored seltzer with real strawberries and no added flavoring, we would need to use half of the world’s strawberry supply to flavor seltzers. And it wouldn’t taste that good or stay fresh for that long. That is not sustainable or cost-effective. Added flavors are amazing. They have been around for way over 100 years. Creating a flavor is truly an art.

Fun fact: The way you make a flavor is the same way you make a perfume! A strawberry flavor and strawberry perfume can use the same ingredients with the solvent being the differentiating factor!

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