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Are natural flavors better than artificial?

Are natural flavors better than artificial?
Are natural flavors better than artificial?

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One year for my birthday, when I was a kid, my grandma gifted me a red velvet bag of deluxe jelly beans.

The flavors ranged from the standard raspberry and peach to the kinds of flavors most people spend their lives actively trying to avoid, like rotten egg and “barf.” I loved poring over the attached flavor guide, matching the pictures to the candies spread out on the kitchen table in front of me and offering my brother the strangest flavors I could find without telling him he was about to eat a booger-flavored jelly bean. I wondered how it was possible to capture the essence of green apple or cantaloupe in the form of a tiny, plastic-y candy. As it turns out, it’s complicated.

“Flavor comes from millions and millions of chemicals inherent in our food and drink,” says Catherine Piccoli, curatorial director at the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, New York. Each of these is able to “trigger our chemical senses,” she says — “smell, taste, sight, touch, hearing.”

Flavor chemicals can be found in whole foods, like fruit, vegetables and meat. But food scientists can also play with them and find new ways of deriving them to help companies create processed foods like dill pickle-flavored potato chips or cherry soda — or, as it happens, barf-flavored jelly beans. Those distinctive or innovative taste profiles typically come from both natural and artificial flavors. But what actually are they? And how do they line up with the “real” thing?

 

The process of taste-making

“Many, but not all, artificial flavors are chemically identical to natural ones,” says Arielle Johnson, a flavor scientist and author of the new book “Flavorama: A Guide to Unlocking the Art and Science of Flavor.” In many cases, the only difference is where they come from.

“Natural flavors come from a food source,” Johnson explains — but what food source, exactly, it doesn’t matter. “So that could be orange oil pressed from orange peels, but it could also be, like, a molecule that smells like a grape extracted from some kind of a non-grape herb, then marketed as a grape flavor.”

Artificial flavors, on the other hand, are simply flavors derived from non-food ingredients. Chemically processed wood pulp, for example, can be used to create flavor molecules that are chemically identical to those in vanilla. “There’s no real difference there with how they interact with the body, and the body can’t tell if something is a natural or artificial flavor,” Johnson adds. “There’s no unique or universal chemical signal for ‘artificial.’”

 

What’s in a name?

So why would a company choose one kind of flavor over another? Sometimes, it comes down to the price tag. “Artificial flavors have fewer restraints around them, so they tend to be cheaper,” Johnson explains. But some artificial flavors are easier to make than others: Vanilla flavoring, she says, gets its characteristic flavor from a single compound, vanillin. The flavor of strawberry, on the other hand, can’t be attributed to only one molecule; instead, chemists may need to use five or six to capture the complexity of the fruit and mimic its true flavor.

There are also incentives to using natural flavors, even though they tend to be more expensive. Most consumers don’t understand the difference between natural and artificial flavors, but they may feel like the word “natural” has a positive connotation that’s worth paying more for. “The word ‘natural’ is there to make buyers think the food is the real thing, whether or not it really is,” says food scholar Marion Nestle, author of “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.” Often, she explains, “people who care about such things do not like the term ‘artificial’ and avoid foods with artificial ingredients.”

Companies are responding accordingly. “Many companies are removing artificial flavors from their products in response to consumer demand for more natural foods,” explains Piccoli. “This doesn’t mean added flavors have disappeared. As technology becomes more sophisticated, the flavor industry is making more flavors that can be labeled ‘natural.’”

Still, Nestle thinks there is a limit: “Flavors in foods are complex, and the synthetic ones cannot approach that complexity.”

Jennifer Boggiss, CEO and cofounder of Heilala Vanilla, agrees. “When you are drying your vanilla beans, part of your sort of quality control is you can do a vanillin test to see what the vanillin level in your vanilla,” she told FoodPrint in the most recent episode of our podcast, “What You’re Eating.” But that doesn’t mean vanillin alone will capture the bean’s entire essence: “A vanilla bean has over 200 flavor compounds, of which vanillin is one.”

 

Are flavor additives cause for concern?

Natural flavors are the fourth-most common ingredient in packaged foods, but that doesn’t mean foods labeled “naturally flavored” are what most of us would think of as natural. According to David Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, natural and artificial flavors alike are combined with other chemicals that work to keep molecules separate — which helps preserve their chemical structure, and therefore, functionality of flavor — and prevent spoilage. “These other chemical solvents or preservatives do not need to be naturally derived, even in [foods with] natural flavor,” he says.

Still, is one kind of flavoring better for us than the other? “There is little information differentiating the safety between natural and artificial flavors,” Andrews explains. In fact, he says, there are unanswered questions about both: “A major concern with flavors and other food additives is that the food industry can self-determine the safety of added ingredients without oversight from the Food and Drug Administration.”

Johnson notes that, regardless of health concerns about the flavors themselves, these additives can be used as a “smokescreen” to make highly processed foods appear more palatable or pure. For example, she says, “most orange juice is made by totally removing the aromas from orange juice, then adding orange flavoring back to the juice to make it taste like oranges again.” Practices like this, Johnson adds, can be an issue of informed consent if consumers don’t truly understand what they’re eating.

Andrews echoes the observation about the role of flavor in processed foods: “Both natural and artificial flavors change or modify the taste of a product in a way that is designed to make you want to consume more.” And when you consume more of a food, you buy more of it, too.

 

The case for flavor

Though flavor additives, both natural and artificial, may largely be used to coax us into buying and consuming more processed foods, there is another part of the story: They can help more people experience flavors that would otherwise be out of reach.

“Added flavors can certainly democratize the flavors of luxury ingredients,” says Piccoli. “They can also be used to create flavors of ingredients facing global shortages due to unprecedented consumption, climate change, political upheaval and crop disease.” As climate concerns and political instability continue to impact yields and supply chains, additives could play a more important role in our food system. But even today, food additives are ubiquitous — and avoiding them is difficult.

“The flavor industry and the industrial food system grew up together, and added flavors are integral to processed and packaged foods,” Piccoli adds. “When we demonize added flavors, we are demonizing nearly all packaged foods, which can have their place as quick and convenient sources of food and nutrition.” It’s possible to think critically about the industrial food system without shaming those whose diets include flavor additives, many of whom must rely on processed foods for economic or geographic reasons. After all, it’s not really the flavors that are the problem.

I don’t know whether the jelly beans in that velvet bag were naturally or artificially flavored. It likely doesn’t make a difference — you can’t really eat a food more processed than a packaged jelly bean. But I’ll never forget the thrill of experiencing what seemed like a world of different flavors, some familiar, some completely new.

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