Many consumers find food labels to be vague and confusing. While the connotations "artificial" and "natural" are pretty well known to the general public, their meaning starts to get blurry when put on food labels. Food is a particularly sensitive subject, and with words like "artificial" generally sounding "fake or bad", it is important to clarify the difference between consuming artificial versus natural flavors.
Most consumers wonder whether they should care about whether a product claims it is "natural" or "artificial." The question on their minds is, "Is natural any better than artificial flavor?" Well, when it comes to food flavors, there's not much evidence to show artificial flavors are less healthy than natural flavors. It turns out there's not that much of a difference between natural and artificial food flavors at all.
According to the Environmental Working Group, natural flavors rank fourth among the most common ingredients in packaged eatables. Natural flavors, as the name suggests, are typically a mixture of chemicals extracted from animal and plant materials, which is processed to offer a certain taste in food items.
Natural flavor is developed in a laboratory, and can be processed using a variety of different organic compounds. McDonald's French fries, for instance, use milk and wheat to create their "natural beef flavor". This means a manufacturer or producer can call a flavor "strawberry flavor" but use chemicals that are not necessarily derived from strawberries.
Typically, natural flavors feature a bigger price tag than artificial flavors. However, they also contain plenty of the ingredients used in creating artificial flavors, including solvents, preservatives, and emulsifiers. The only exception is natural flavor for organic foods, which is not allowed to add some chemical ingredients.
Artificial flavors, on the other hand, are not obtained from animal and plant materials. Instead, different chemical compounds are synthesized in a lab to bring out a specific taste in a safe-consume-product. Naturally, most fruits and flowers get their scent and flavor from compounds known as esters. Scientists can recreate these compounds in a laboratory to create artificial food flavors that are almost indistinguishable from the true flavor.
Artificial flavors can also be made of the exact same materials as natural flavors. For instance, "artificial" lemon flavor is often made from citral, which is a critical ingredient in making "natural" lemon flavor. The only difference is that what and how they are synthesizing is not identical. However, their taste and aroma will be identical as they are made from the same compound.
The word "artificial" does not mean that a flavor is worse or less sustainable than a "natural" flavor. Moreover, with the stiff competition in the food industry, manufacturers do not list the components in their flavoring ingredients for fear of proprietary formulas being replicated by their competitors. It comes down to consumers weighing the philosophical difference between natural and artificial flavors and what it means to them.
Are Natural Flavors Better than Artificial Flavors?
All foods are presented as chemical structures, and so are flavors, from the tangy citric acid in oranges to the oils in an avocado. Natural flavors are created from organic compounds found in nature, while artificial flavors are re-produced in a lab. While artificial flavors are preferred for their ease of control (easy to find precise taste and aroma), natural food flavors often vary with harvesting methods and animal or plant production techniques.
In terms of food safety, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assesses the safety of food flavors based on the short-term and long-term effects on the people who may consume the product. It is not advisable to judge the essence of a food flavor on the ingredients list or on food labels, since it is almost impossible to list all the individual chemical additives used to create the flavor.
Not every substance that comes from organic sources is healthy, and the basic idea that anything "natural" should be considered more desirable should be abandoned. Artificial flavors are indistinguishable from natural and often have similar taste and aroma. The real difference in the quality of a flavor is not on whether it is labeled "natural" or "artificial" but in the processes of synthesizing in individual companies.
How Are Natural and Artificial Flavors Added to Foods and Drinks?
Flavors have to be blended into a food or drink. Most companies use solvents, often referred to as a carrier, to mix flavors into their beverages and foods. Some of the most common solvents include water, ethyl alcohol, propylene glycol, glycerin, and maltodextrin.
Aside from solvents, there are several other ingredients that are commonly used to complement and complete the flavor. These compounds include flavor complements such as cocoa powder for chocolate flavors, preservatives to extend the shelf life of a product, and stabilizers that ensure the taste and aroma of a flavor does not change over time.
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Are added flavors safe to consume?
Flavors can have vastly different profiles, ranging from very simple to extremely complex. Regardless, flavors are generally safe for consumption as their creation takes into account regulatory requirements from the FDA as they create the profile requested.
Are artificial flavors harmful to your good gut bacteria?
According to research carried out on flavor, consumers over the short and long term suggest that artificial flavors have no harmful effect on your good gut bacteria.
What do I look for in an ingredient list?
Look for a mention of the actual source of the flavor on the ingredients list. For instance, if you see the term "natural flavor" on an ingredients list, you may see "natural maple flavor", if the maple flavor gets its flavor from natural maples.
What is the FDA's role in making sure flavors are safe?
The FDA is authorized to monitor all food and drink products, and in food flavors, the organization checks to see that all the ingredients written on a product reflect the true image of its contents.