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Eating Well Organic

What is the Difference Between Natural and Artificial Flavorings?

Trying to decode the ingredients list on your food or cosmetics can sometimes feel like rocket science. Sodium carboxymethyl cellulose? Polysorbate 60? Red 40? It can be difficult to determine what is a natural ingredient and what is completely artificial, especially when reading through a list of unfamiliar ingredients. This gets even more confusing when you learn that “natural flavor” can be made up of artificial additives.

Natural vs. Artificial

Not recognizing an ingredient doesn’t mean that it is harmful or bad. Many truly natural ingredients are actually chemical compounds found in plants. The lovely scent of cinnamon is due to cinnamaldehyde, while the scent of cloves comes from eugenol. It’s not a matter of if it’s a chemical, it’s a matter of where that chemical is derived from.

According to the FDA, an artificial flavor is “any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof”.

On the other hand, a natural flavor is known to be “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate… 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”. 1

To clarify, natural ingredients are supposed to be derived from natural sources. This seems simple, right?

Regulation of the Word ‘Natural’

Unfortunately, things aren’t always black or white. Take banana flavor, for example. Artificial banana flavor comes from a molecule known as isoamyl acetate. Natural banana flavor also comes from isoamyl acetate. This chemical, among many others, is found occurring naturally in bananas and contributes to its sweet flavor. It is also easily and cheaply recreated in a lab. Whether isoamyl acetate is naturally or artificially sourced, it smells and tastes the same. 2

Ultimately, the difference comes down to marketing techniques. Consumers are more likely to choose a product that contains natural flavors as opposed to artificial flavors. Yet in some cases, artificial flavoring can actually be better for you than natural. If natural flavor was directly extracted from almonds, it would contain small amounts of cyanide, which is highly toxic. Artificial almond flavor, on the other hand, has the taste of almonds without the health risks. 3

If you’re eating processed foods, you’re tasting a chemically derived flavor that is specifically designed to keep you coming back for more. Both natural and artificial strawberry flavor isolates the sweetest, tastiest aspect of strawberries. Instead of reaching for a fresh-picked berry, the food industry wants you to eat their packaged products.

The word ‘natural’ isn’t highly regulated and can mean anything. Even a naturally derived strawberry flavor needs to be packed full of preservatives and stabilizers to help it blend well in the final food product. These ingredients are known as “incidental additives” and don’t need to be added to the list of ingredients.

Can Natural Flavorings be Healthy and Sweet?

True natural flavorings can be both healthy and sweet, but this is usually only the case when the ingredient list doesn’t include ‘natural flavors’. Because there isn’t much regulation around using the word ‘natural’, you should aim to choose food products that fully disclose all ingredients used. While some fruit bars have a long list of ingredients that include natural flavors, others are made from a combination of dates, nuts, and real fruit.

There are some situations in which natural flavorings are derived from natural sources and don’t contain any incidental additives. Natural and organic ‘essences’ along with natural and organic ‘extracts’ don’t contain any other additives or extra ingredients. Natural flavors on a certified organic product don’t contain any synthetic ingredients, making them safer than those listed on non-organic products. Many common additives are banned from organic natural flavors. 4

Choosing Your Food Wisely

When in doubt, it’s best to opt against packaged foods that contain either natural or artificial flavors. Real fruit, flavorful spices, and truly natural sweeteners such as honey and the stevia plant can brighten up boring food without unwanted ingredients. Freshly squeezed lemon juice or a drop of lemon essential oil in a glass of water can make it more interesting!

Keep your kitchen stocked with fresh ingredients and essential oils that are safe for internal use. The more you use real flavors, the less inclined you’ll be to purchase food with excessive additives.

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