Natural vs. Artificial: What is the difference?

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By John H. Cox
Executive Director, FEMA

In today’s environment, almost every type of food comes in a wide variety of flavors. Potato chips, yogurt and even beverages can be enhanced using flavor compounds developed by a flavorist. With all of these choices, consumers are beginning to look at labels and wonder what the words on the ingredients list actually mean. Why do some products have natural flavors while others appear to be artificial?

What is the difference between natural and artificial flavor?

The Code of Federal Regulations defines a natural flavor as “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.” Flavors that do not meet these standards are considered artificial.

This is where consumers can sometimes get confused. The compounds used to create natural and artificial flavors are not chemically different from each other. In recent weeks, we have discussed the complexity of flavors and the surprising intricacies that are involved in creating a flavor. As we recently explained, even simple natural flavors like vanilla can contain hundreds of flavor compounds. Even natural flavor extracts have a complex chemical makeup, and when a flavorist creates a flavor in a lab, the chemical makeup is identical to the natural flavoring.

For instance, a substance called Ethyl Methyl Phenyl Glycidate is the primary naturally occurring component that gives a strawberry its distinctive flavor.  Flavorists have learned the exact chemical structure of this compound and can replicate it for use in consumer goods that do not require natural flavor.

So artificial flavors and natural flavors are exactly the same?

Not exactly. The chemical makeup and the compounds used to develop the flavors may be identical, but there are some important differences. Something that may seem counterintuitive to many health-conscious consumers is that artificial flavors, due to the manner in which they are formulated, often undergo even stricter safety evaluations than natural flavors.

As Gary Reineccius, Ph.D., University of Minnesota Co-Director of the Food Science and Nutrition Department, explains, when a flavorist creates a flavor from scratch it can be guaranteed that every component of the flavor has been safety-tested and verifiably approved for consumption. While all flavors on the market are approved through the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) Program, flavorists have more control over what goes into the composition of a flavor they develop rather than an extract from nature.

Another difference between the two types of flavors found on food labels is the price. Consumers will pay a premium price for foods that include “natural” ingredients rather than those that do not specify that they are natural, but some consumers do not fully understand why. Some may think it’s because “natural” means healthier. Since we know natural and artificial flavors are chemically identical, why do natural ingredients cost more? It is as simple as where the compounds are sourced. When a flavorist creates a flavor, many of those compounds and components are in the lab, at the tip of his or her fingers. However, for natural flavors, companies retrieve compounds and extracts from all over the world. The resources necessary to obtain the natural flavorings cost more money.

Did you know the components in a natural flavor are the same as the artificial equivalent? Do you think consumers understand what the natural label really means? Please share your comments below.

The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States (FEMA) was founded in 1909 and is the national association of the U.S. flavor industry.  FEMA’s membership is comprised of flavor manufacturers, flavor users, flavor ingredient suppliers, and others with an interest in the U.S. flavor industry.  The association is committed to ensuring a safe supply of flavor ingredients used in foods and beverages enjoyed by billions of men, women, and children around the world.


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3 thoughts on “Natural vs. Artificial: What is the difference?

  1. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] The Surprising Truth About How Many Chemicals Are In Everything We Eat | BaciNews

  2. Hey, I think this article is really great. It’s logical, well supported by factual information, and it is a powerful and revealing argument in an anti-artificial climate.

    Thanks for posting this, and keep it up!

  3. Thank you for helping clarify for consumers that there is essentially little or no difference between the end product, of so-called “natural” versus artificial flavors! I am constantly amazed at how often the most health conscious of folks have no idea and believe natural flavor are more healthy!
    This is quite a deception by the food industry.

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