Whether natural or artificial, flavors are common additives that manufacturers have used for many decades to enhance the taste of foods and beverages. Natural flavors can incorporate derivatives of natural ingredients such as fruits, spices, and vegetables; artificial flavors can help provide a larger variety of flavors that are carefully regulated for health and safety.
To better understand the fascinating world of food flavors, here are some of the most important terms and phrases you need to know.
Additives—These are substances that are added to food to improve and preserve its taste, texture, and appearance. Besides flavors, common additives include colors, preservatives, and thickeners.
Artificial flavors—Also referred to as synthetic flavors, artificial flavors are essentially chemically identical to natural flavors, but the ingredients used to make them are derived from non-natural sources.
Distillate—The liquid that is extracted from a food through distillation, the process of heating and condensing vapor.
Essential oil—Essential oils are used in the creation of flavors for a wide range of foods and beverages. They are obtained by distilling or expressing (pressing) material from a single type of plant. Essential oils are highly volatile substances, meaning that they evaporate quickly and easily.
Extract—A liquid solution that contains essential elements of a more complex material. For example, a flavor extract like vanillin (the extract of vanilla) is composed specifically of compounds that produce flavors.
Flavor—We might think of flavor as only referring to taste, but in fact, flavor describes the entire range of sensations—including taste, smell, and physical properties like heat (as in cinnamon) or cold (as in spearmint)—that we perceive when eating or drinking.
Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA)—Since its establishment in 1909, FEMA has been the voice of the US flavor industry, working with legislators and regulators to meet the needs of its members and consumers and to ensure a consistent supply of safe flavoring ingredients. FEMA members include flavor manufacturers, flavor ingredient suppliers, and flavor users.
FEMA GRAS—Overseen by FEMA’s Expert Panel, an independent committee of esteemed scientists, this program evaluates the safety of flavoring substances and carries out routine re-evaluations of FEMA GRAS substances (see below).
Flavor palette—For a flavorist (see below), a flavor palette fulfills the same function that a color palette does for a painter. In other words, a flavor palette refers to a full range of ingredients that imparts tastes, smells, and physical traits; flavorists can mix and match from this palette to make a virtually infinite number of flavor combinations.
Flavorist—A flavorist is a specially trained scientist who designs and creates flavor combinations for foods and beverages. Part chemist and part artist, a flavorist undergoes extensive training to develop the skills necessary to imagine new and innovative ways for consumers to experience flavors.
Generally Recognized as Safe—Better known by its acronym GRAS, the phrase “Generally Recognized as Safe” is an official FDA designation that indicates that a compound or substance added to food is considered safe by qualified experts. Ingredients may achieve GRAS status either through the GRAS notification program (a voluntary program developed by the FDA in 1997), or through an independently conducted GRAS determination.
Masking—If a flavor extract is particularly intense, flavorists may need to use ingredients, known as masking compounds, to reduce or diminish that intensity.
Natural flavors—Essentially, natural flavors are flavorings that come from natural sources such as fruits, vegetables, plant materials, and even meat or other animal products. However, different countries have different formal definitions of what constitutes a natural flavor. In the US, both the FDA and the USDA officially define “natural flavor” as part of their regulations.
Oleoresin—A mixture of an essential oil and resin compounds, an oleoresin is a highly concentrated flavoring substance in liquid form.
Self limitation—This term refers to the idea that flavors are so strong that there is no risk of them being hazardous to human health. This is because the point at which the chemical compounds approach toxicity is so far beyond our normal acceptance level that no one would be able to swallow flavorings at these unsafe levels.
Synergy—To increase the perception of a flavor without necessarily increasing the flavor itself, flavorists may use other ingredients that synergize with the original flavor, thus intensifying it.
Trigeminal—Trigeminal sensations are feelings—like hot, cold, spicy, and tingling—that come from eating certain foods. This happens because the chemical compounds in these foods affect the trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for sensations like pain, temperature, and touch (but not taste) in the mouth. Some of the best-known ingredients that affect the trigeminal nerve are capsaicin, the compound that gives chilies their spice; citric acid, which produces a tingling effect; and menthol, which has a cooling sensation.