Pick Your Poison: Natural and Artificial Flavors

As many of the major American holidays have passed, new year’s resolutions are occupying our minds rather than visions of sugarplums – or are they? February is here and that means Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day, a sweet holiday in all aspects of the word. But before you ask your sweetie to give you some sugar this holiday, let’s take a dive (or Godiva, if you will) into what gives some of those delicious chocolates and candies their distinctive flavors.

The sweetness and flavor comes primarily from sugar, right?

Maybe. But not necessarily.

Companies often use added flavorings to make their products taste better.

Flavorings are getting a lot of attention in recent years. In fact, a recent health and wellness survey revealed that more than half of Americans look for the presence of artificial ingredients when determining food purchases. This sentiment was echoed, in the context of candies and chocolates specifically, in a Nestle study indicating that consumers prefer when candy brands are free from artificial colors and flavors.

Many companies have heeded this demand, with more than 250 products and 10 brands removing artificial flavorings from their recipes.

To understand why, it is important to know where flavors come from.

Food flavorings can be derived from both natural and artificial sources. According to the FDA, a “natural” flavor is one that is edible and has been extracted from nature, such as plants or animals. Likewise, FDA regulations accept an “artificial” flavor as any flavor derived from a synthetic origin. Basically, the word natural implies that the flavoring substance is originally produced in nature (Extracts from, fruits, flowers, bark, herbs, animals, etc), while the word artificial implies that the flavoring substance originated in a laboratory.

Because natural flavors are from nature, which has limited resources, they can be expensive and challenging to source. However, flavor substances from natural sources often have names which are familiar to and more easily recognized by consumers. Artificial flavors, on the other hand, are created by man and therefore less limited and less expensive to source. Often, artificial flavors are created to be chemically identical to their natural counterparts. However, the artificial flavor substances and their origins are unfamiliar to and often ill-received by consumers.

So if artificial flavors cause less environmental stress, are less expensive, and have identical chemical structures to natural flavorings – what’s the problem?

In a nutshell: It’s complicated, and both types of flavors are not well-understood by the general public.

We’re not turning a blind eye to that.

Is one type of flavoring better than the other? Why are people concerned with the presence of any added flavors at all? What if we forfeited the addition of extracted flavors in our foods altogether? Let’s find out.

Is one type of flavoring better than the other?

The short answer? It depends.

In general, consumers are demanding more transparency from food manufacturers. It stands to reason then that a word like “artificial” would not necessarily inspire trust when a natural alternative is available. From an environmental standpoint, however, extracting natural flavors can be very costly. Financially, they are expensive to obtain, but a price is also paid by the extraction source. For instance, the extraction process of some natural flavorings results in the death of those plants. In the case of chocolates and candies, consider natural vanilla or natural coconut extracts. Artificial flavorings, on the other hand, are produced in a more controlled environment which significantly lessens the environmental impact and cost of such ingredients. All of this artificial synthesis can be done while maintaining the chemical composition and flavor profile of the original substance.

Why are people concerned with the presence of any added flavors at all?

First, it is important to note that both natural and artificial flavors undergo rigorous testing to demonstrate their safety before they are incorporated into consumer products. Once tested, approved substances are added to the FDA’s GRAS list – A list of ingredients and additives that are “generally recognized as safe” for human consumption.

That said, some scientific literature suggests that flavor additives may be unsafe. Perhaps the most notable flavor additive is monosodium glutamate (MSG), which was discovered in Japan in the early 1900s. MSG is a flavor enhancer with a salt-like consistency that enhances the flavor of meats, as well as other processed and prepared foods. It is interesting to note that MSG did not become widespread in the United States until after World War II, when American soldiers observed that Japanese rations were more flavorful than their own rations. MSG was included in the GRAS list in the 1950s. However, a couple decades later, potential side effects surfaced for allergic and behavioral interactions. Perhaps the synthesis of MSG is where the concern and necessity for flavor transparency originated. As medical experts began researching the link between MSG consumption and symptoms ranging from headaches and dizziness to brain damage and heart problems, consumers became increasingly concerned with added flavorings. These concerns have continued today.

Chocolates and candies do not possess the umami, or savory, flavor imparted by MSG, but they often contain other added flavorings to enhance the taste of these items. Common natural or artificial flavors in sweets are vanilla flavoring and caramel flavoring. The actual side effects associated with these flavors, and nearly all artificial or natural flavors, have yet to be laid to rest, as scientific research in this area is relatively new and ongoing.

The verdict? Well, without conclusive and universal scientific evidence, it is difficult to determine the risks involved with the consumption of added flavors. However, a word of caution should perhaps be spoken to those who are concerned about chemical sensitivities or those who practice certain dietary restrictions (e.g. vegetarian, vegan, kosher, halal, etc), as nutrition labels are nondescript concerning such flavorings and the source of flavor origin is often difficult to determine.

What if we forfeited the addition of extracted flavors in our foods altogether?

At this point, it may be common to wonder if added flavors are even necessary in our food. In fact, how significant is the additional taste experience we perceive from these added flavors?

Again, it depends.

Without adding flavors, many common food items would not react the same way with our taste receptors and may be described as bland, or lacking in flavor. A food item that is lower in fat or sugar will undoubtedly be enhanced by added flavors or sweeteners that increase the sensation of richness, creaminess, or sugary-ness. Additionally, smoked meats and seafood often contain “smoke flavor” in order to enhance the smoky taste and overall eating experience of that product. The previous example of war rations reiterates this. Added flavors play a key role in enhancing the taste of our food and it stands to reason that added flavors are not only discernible by our palates, but also more desirable.

In conclusion, the jury is still out on artificial and natural flavors. It’s a complicated area of food science and the ultimate decision to consume them or not will be determined by what the consumer values. Is the value on the origin? The environment? The need for transparency? The taste experience?

You decide.

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