Taste is overwhelmingly the top driver in our food choices. This is seen on an almost yearly basis in the Food and Healthy Survey. This past year, 84 percent of American consumers said taste is a top driver of purchases. Many times, in our own cooking and what we decide to buy, the answer is flavor. It can make you turn your nose up (thyme for me – yuck!) or instantly make your mouth water. Flavor is the unique combination of taste and smell. Added flavors have different functions, but many times they fall under one of the following purposes: enhancing (or modifying) already present flavors, masking off-flavors, increasing acceptance of otherwise bland foods, and giving a food product its identity. For this reason, you will see “natural flavor” or “artificial flavor” for many different products on the ingredients statement.
Natural or Artificial – How Can You Tell?
Before jumping into what this classification means, it is important to acknowledge how food regulations guarantee our access to information about the products we buy and consume. For any product containing natural or artificial flavor or colorant, it will always be disclosed in the ingredient statement. In addition, the front panel of the product must display “artificially flavored” or “naturally flavored.” Flavors are broadly categorized into artificial or natural, and they have further categories within each. The difference in classification originates with where the flavor comes from. If the flavoring agent comes from one of the following sources, it is considered natural:
- fruit or fruit juice
- vegetable or vegetable juice
- edible yeast
- leaf or similar plant material
- meat, fish
- dairy products
- fermentation products
Otherwise, it is classified and labeled as an artificial flavor. Artificial flavors are created by flavor specialists. Natural sources of flavor are often structurally more complex because a fruit or plant material is not designed to produce high yields of a single compound in the same way a specialist can.
Here is where it becomes even more complex. Say a company wants to enhance the strawberry flavor of a yogurt. They have two routes, natural or artificial. The artificial flavor could contain the exact same primary flavor substance as a natural strawberry flavor, but the labels would still be completely different. No matter what, if this compound is synthesized it will appear on the label as “artificial flavor.” If the yogurt maker instead decided to use a strawberry extract (from the fruit), with the exact same flavor composition as the artificial flavor, it would be labeled as “natural flavor” or “natural strawberry flavor.” Exact same primary flavoring agent. Different sources. Different labels. Many companies will decide to use these nature-identical flavors derived from artificial flavorants because of cost or availability issues.
Are Artificial Flavors Safe?
Not everything can be used as an artificial flavor. A compound has to have been previously approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use as a food additive. The full list of artificial flavors approved for use is extensive and can be found here. Common to all food additives, artificial flavors must pass a safety evaluation process where sufficient evidence was submitted to the Food and Drug Administration. The evaluation process, also known as GRAS, is FDA’s assessment of safety. This should provide a level of confidence in eating both naturally or artificially flavored items. More information on the approval process can be found in our Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives & Colors.
Fear not the next “artificially” or “naturally” flavored product you stumble upon. As you start to look in your fridge or in your cupboards, you will likely realize how prevalent they are in many of your favorite products. Two of my favorite items, freshly-roasted coffee and dark chocolate, are known for their extremely complex flavor profile as well as their uniqueness; nothing brings me greater joy than Ethiopian coffee or a rich dark chocolate bar. My hedonistic morning and afternoon pleasure are overwhelmingly the result of excellent flavor. The next time you consider buying a wacky product you stumble upon in the grocery store (I’m looking at you, watermelon-flavored cookies), consider the importance of both natural and artificial flavors in our foods.