Natural vs. Artificial Flavors

If you’ve ever checked the ingredients list on the back of a food you’ve probably seen the words ‘natural flavors’ and ‘artificial flavors’. What do these mean?

What’s the difference between natural and artificial flavors? It can be confusing to navigate the terms used on our food labels but it’s important to understand them.

Let’s start with the key take-away: “Natural and artificial flavors really aren’t that different. And those “natural flavors” can actually contain synthetic chemicals!” [1] In short the word ‘natural’ is a very loose term. Companies can market their foods as ‘natural’ or ‘naturally-derived’ without it actually being the way that you may interpret it; it’s all in the word play.

artificial flavorsSo what does ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ mean and what’s the difference? According to a Harvard Science Publication, “The FDA broadly defines natural flavors to include any flavor isolated from natural sources like plant material (fruits, roots, bark, herbs, etc.) or animal products (meat, dairy, etc.). Artificial flavors are any flavors that are not defined as natural, even if they have the exact same chemical composition as flavors isolated directly from nature.”[2] A true natural flavor is one that is not man-made, but it can sometimes be difficult to obtain and potentially can cause harm to the environment if great efforts need to be taken to get that particular flavor. Then there are “naturally” flavored foods which are also lab derived, with sometimes as many as 2000 chemicals to create 500 ‘natural flavors’ according to one statistic.“[3] So this means that “naturally” flavored food is not truly natural, but nature derived.

Artificial flavors are created chemically, but “many nature-identical artificial flavors are actually available in higher purity than their natural congeners and may be obtained with less damage to the environment.” 2 This means that in some cases it can actually be better to have the artificial flavor than the natural one. This might seem confusing as the typical impression of ‘chemical’ or ‘artificial’, especially when it comes to food, is usually interpreted negatively. But keep in mind that everything has a chemical property. “All flavors, including those intrinsically present in food, as well as natural and artificial flavor additives are small chemical compounds or mixtures of compounds.” 2 Everything has a chemical property so the key is to know which chemical are the ones to avoid, for both ‘naturally flavored’ and ‘artificially flavored’ foods.

natural flavorsA good rule of thumb is to look at the ingredient list. If there is a seemingly never-ending ingredient list with many long words that you don’t understand, chances are these are the bad ‘artificial flavors’ used to preserve your food. In general these will be present in processed and packaged foods found in your grocery store. You should always try to be aware of the foods are you eating as some believe that as  consumers are now avoiding artificial flavors, the industry is ramping up efforts to find replacements with questionable difference.

It’s hard to avoid ‘naturally flavored’ and ‘artificially flavored’ foods. The flavor enhances are often present in many of the things we consume and used to amplify the experience of the food. 90% of Americans’ grocery purchases contain added flavors.” 2 Again, when purchasing foods that say either ‘naturally or artificially flavored’ read the ingredients list to get a better picture of what it actually contains. The best approach is to purchase whole foods such as whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats and fruits and vegetables.

Sky’s Bottom Line:

  • “Natural” and “artificial” flavors are not that different and you can’t always trust when a food claims to be “natural.”
  • There is a difference between an actual natural flavor and something that is “naturally flavored.”
  • If the ingredient list contains words you don’t recognize, skip it!

[1] http://www.ewg.org/foodscores/content/natural-vs-artificial-flavors
[2] http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/the-flavor-rundown-natural-vs-artificial-flavors/
[3] http://educate-yourself.org/cn/naturalflavorschemicals27aug13.shtml