All foods can be expressed as chemical structures, from the citric acid that gives oranges their tang to the different fats that are in an avocado. These are often referred to as “natural” chemicals, since we see them occurring in foods in nature. The FDA defines “natural flavors” as chemical flavor compounds extracted directly from plants, animals or plant and animal products as found in nature. Artificial flavors are then those not extracted from nature but rather re-produced in the lab. It’s generally assumed that “natural” is better, but the science of flavoring is so advanced that many artificial flavors actually have the exact same chemical structure as the naturally occurring ones! Flavors are often not one chemical, but a combination of chemicals. The scientists working in this area, “Flavorists” may use several natural chemicals to create a flavor for a food, or several artificial chemicals-or may even use both natural and artificial chemicals.
Food processors may use artificial flavor chemicals because they are less expensive. The process of extracting natural flavors is often long, difficult, and requires heavy processing, while the artificial route can be less time consuming, involve less processing, and reduce environmental concerns and costs. Artificial flavor chemicals are also easier to control; flavors derived from natural products may vary with plant production or harvesting methods. However, some consumer prefer natural ingredients, so companies and especially food products promoted as healthier for you may opt for natural flavors.
When it comes to food safety, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) carefully monitors food additives like flavors, colors and preservatives, both natural and artificial. Additives, including flavors, are assessed for safety based on the amount that people may eat, and long and short-term health effects. Food label ingredient lists may not list each individual chemical additive since they are used in small amounts and are often combined with many complementary flavors. Cherry flavors for example, tend to include 5-10 individual chemical flavors depending on the desired outcome, like a woodsy black cherry or a simpler jolly rancher cherry flavor. A label with cherry flavor may simply list natural flavor, artificial flavor, or both-depending on which is used.
If you are concerned with consuming added flavors, either natural or artificial, read food labels carefully. However, eating more of your foods as whole foods and fewer as processed foods (think an apple instead of a Hostess apple fruit pie) rather than focusing on single ingredients, is a better strategy to getting the nutrition you need to be healthy.
This article was posted in Nutrition News.