In the competition to attract today’s increasingly health conscious consumers, more and more fast food brands and food manufacturers are looking for quick fixes that will allow them to claim that they are using better ingredients. One of the most commonly used strategies is to start using “natural flavors” instead of “artificial flavors.” That sounds healthier, right?
Unfortunately, the distinction between natural and artificial flavors is not as simple as it might seem. Read on to learn more about the world of natural flavors, and why they’re not necessarily better or worse than artificial flavors: just different.
What are natural flavors?
According to the official definition from the US Food and Drug Administration, natural flavor and natural flavoring are terms used to describe substances that have been extracted, distilled, or similarly derived from plant or animal sources; these sources can include anything from spices and herbs to meat and dairy products. The FDA definition also specifies that the main function of natural flavors, not surprisingly, is to enhance the flavor of the foods or beverages they are added to, rather than to contribute nutritional value. Natural flavors are an extremely common addition to processed foods: in an Environmental Working Group study of more than 80,000 food products, natural flavors were found to be the fourth most commonly listed ingredient, with only salt, water, and sugar being listed more often.
What’s the difference between natural and artificial flavors?
It’s tempting to assume that if natural flavors come from natural sources, as described above, artificial flavors must therefore come from artificial sources. But the reality is a little more complicated.
Certainly, it’s true that artificial flavors don’t come from plants and animals, but rather from human-made, synthetic chemicals. But there are some important nuances to understand here. The first is that all flavors, natural or artificial, contain chemicals. Despite the modern connotation of the term, the definition of “chemical” is not “a harmful artificial substance,” but rather anything made of matter: in other words, chemicals are the building blocks that make up anything you can taste, smell, or hold. So the common assumption that artificial flavors are “bad” because they are made from chemicals stems from a misunderstanding of what chemicals actually are.
Another subtlety at work in the natural versus artificial flavor debate is that, although natural flavors may be derived from plant and animal sources, this doesn’t mean that they are pure substances. In fact, natural flavors are complex mixtures that are created by specialized food chemists known as “flavorists,” and they can contain more than 100 different chemicals, including preservatives, in addition to the original flavor source.
From a consumer perspective, this means that the “natural flavors” found in your favorite brand of blueberry granola bars don’t necessarily come from actual blueberries, but more likely from a chemical derived from blueberries that has been enhanced in a lab and then added to the food. Because the chemical has been derived from a plant-based source, the flavor can be called “natural;” if the chemical had been manufactured synthetically, the flavor would have to be called “artificial,” even though natural and artificial flavors tend to be chemically identical.
What are some examples of natural flavors?
Of the hundreds of natural food flavors created by flavorists, some of the ones you’re most likely to taste include:
Amyl acetate—Distilled from bananas, this compound is used to give baked goods a banana-like flavor.
Citral—Extracted from lemongrass, lemon, orange, and pimento, citral is often added to citrus-flavored sweets and beverages. It is also known as geranial.
Benzaldehyde—For an almond flavor and aroma, food manufacturers use benzaldehyde, which is extracted from things like almonds and cinnamon oil.
Castoreum—Occasionally used as a substitute for vanilla, this slightly sweet substance has a very surprising source: the anal secretions of beavers.
So, which is better, natural flavor or artificial flavor?
Although natural flavors might sound like the healthier option, the reality is that, as we’ve seen, there’s little difference between natural and artificial flavors. Indeed, some even argue that artificial flavors are a better choice than natural flavors, because they are produced under strictly controlled laboratory conditions and are more closely regulated in terms of health and safety. The use of artificial flavors also eliminates the risk that vegetarians or vegans may unknowingly consume animal-derived natural flavors.
So what about all those fast food companies that replace artificial flavors with natural flavors to demonstrate that their products are healthier? Clearly, it’s worth taking those claims with a grain of salt. Instead, consumers would do well to remember the reasons why added flavors are used in the first place—to make blander food more appealing, or to replace flavors that have been lost through heavy processing—and focus on choosing whole food options that taste naturally great, without any added flavors, whether artificial or natural.