Check your pantry or nearly any grocery store shelf. Odds are, many of the items you find will list natural or artificial flavors in the ingredients. Of the two, natural flavor sounds more appealing. But what are natural flavors and how do they differ from their artificial counterparts?
What is natural flavor?
Natural and artificial flavors are defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the Code of Federal Regulations, which contains all the current rules and regulations enforced by the agencies of the U.S. government.
The Code gives a doozy of a definition for natural flavor.
The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.
To put it much more simply, "Basically, if something is a natural flavor, it's derived from some natural source," Charles Platkin, director of the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College, tells NPR.
Artificial flavors, on the other hand, are made from anything else that doesn't fall under the "natural" umbrella.
How natural and artificial flavors are made
Interestingly, both types of flavors are made in the lab by scientists called "flavorists," who blend various chemicals together.
"There is little substantive difference in the chemical compositions of natural and artificial flavorings," explains Gary Reineccius, a professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota, in Scientific American.
These scientists use "natural" chemicals when they are creating natural flavors, yet turn to "synthetic" chemicals when they are making artificial flavorings.
"The flavorist creating an artificial flavoring must use the same chemicals in his formulation as would be used to make a natural flavoring, however. Otherwise, the flavoring will not have the desired flavor," Reineccius says.
"The distinction in flavorings — natural versus artificial — comes from the source of these identical chemicals and may be likened to saying that an apple sold in a gas station is artificial and one sold from a fruit stand is natural."
Are natural flavors better than artificial flavors?
Although "natural" sure sounds better than "artificial," ingredients that come from nature aren't always safer than those that are artificially made. There are many deadly toxins that are produced in nature.
In addition, Reineccicus writes, "Artificial flavorings are simpler in composition and potentially safer because only safety-tested components are utilized."
Besides health effects, natural flavors also may have more negative environmental impacts than artificial flavors.
Reineccicus gives the example of massoia lactone, which is used for a creamy, coconut, spicy flavor. Harvesting it from the massoia tree in Malaysia kills the tree because harvesters have to remove the bark. NPR says in other cases collecting natural flavors involves clear-cutting and carbon emissions, which doesn't happen when flavors are created in the lab.
Is an orange really an orange?
If you're buying something with natural flavors added and it's supposed to taste like banana or raspberry, don't assume that the flavoring came only from whole bananas or raspberries.
As NPR points out, just because natural flavors must come from natural sources, they don't have to come from the exact spice, plant or meat they're trying to taste like. An orange flavor, for example, might contain orange extract, as well as extract from bark and grass.
Why not just use oranges? Cost is one major reason. In most cases, natural flavors cost more than artificial flavors. Still, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), "food makers are often willing to pay because they know that some consumers prefer 'natural' flavors."
That's not always smart, Reineccius says. "Consumers pay a lot for natural flavorings. But these are in fact no better in quality, nor are they safer, than their cost-effective artificial counterparts."