‘What’s in a flavour?’- Busting The Myth on Natural and Artificial Flavours.

-This new year, let’s let the food on the supermarket shelves deceive us, no more-

So you’re at the flavoured yoghurt aisle in the supermarket. You pick up two cartons of strawberry yoghurt. One that says ‘Added Natural Flavouring’ and one that says ‘Added Artificial Flavouring’. Which one will you put into your cart?

Sticking to our instinct of ‘eating healthy’, you’d pick the one with natural flavouring. But honestly what’s the difference?

Just for the record, let’s get a bit technical.

 Firstly, we’ve got to know the difference between taste and flavour. Taste and flavour are not the same things, although the two are often confused. Flavour is how we perceive food and other substances based on a combination of senses, which include taste, smell, and touch.

According to section 101.22 of the Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 (21CFR), a codification of the FDA’s rules, a flavour is any ingredient “whose significant function in food is flavouring rather than nutritional.”


Now, talking about how natural and artificial flavours can be defined, the FDA’s (Food and Drug Administration) definition of natural flavoring goes something like, a natural flavor is 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.

The FDA’s definition of an artificial flavour is any substance that does not meet the definition of a natural flavour.

Basically, the FDA allows manufacturers to stamp their food products with the label ‘natural’ if their food products come from a natural source and don’t contain any added colours, artificial flavours, or synthetic substances. And artificial if it is derived from a non-natural/inedible source.

There must be a huge difference right?

To be honest the answer is no.

There’s actually not much difference between natural and artificial flavours. Barring extraction from the source, all flavouring undergoes chemical processing before it is added to food items.

Sometimes a chemical flavouring could be made from either natural or artificial sources – the resulting molecule is the same, but the way of making it, can be different.

Besides, all that is natural cannot be perceived to be healthy! Some natural flavours can be more dangerous than the artificial ones. Traces of cyanide can be found in almond flavour, or Benzaldehyde, when derived from nature. This is why, in many movies, the odour of bitter almonds is closely associated with cyanide poisoning.

Also, synthetic chemicals in artificial flavours normally are cheap to produce than finding natural sources of chemicals. They are also much safer as they have been extensively tested and used.

Many do not realise that there can be as many chemicals in a foods’ natural source as there are in its artificial flavouring counterpart. The number of chemical ingredients used to make the artificial strawberry flavour in a fast food strawberry shake, for example, is similar, chemically to the number of chemicals in a fresh strawberry, due to modern farming processes.


Flavours from some rather bizarre sources.

So..anything that has nothing to do with chemicals can be taken to be a natural source right? Just about anything? Including cow dung?

Yes, you read that right. In 2006, Japanese researcher Mayu Yamamoto figured out how to extract vanillin from cow excreta. She was awarded the Nobel Prize at Harvard University for this development.

For another really fun example, let’s look at castoreum, a secretion that comes from the two castor sacs located under a beaver’s tail, right next to a pair of anal glands. It’s classified as a natural food additive—because it comes from an animal source. Castoreum tastes and smells like vanilla, which makes it an option for baked goods, frozen dairy treats, and puddings.


Raw soybeans from which soy sauce is made is also toxic. The packeted soy sauce we get at Chinese take outs are made of acid-hydrolyzed vegetable protein and not from soy beans. The flavour of cinnamon is primarily from the compound ‘cinnamaldehyde’. Pure cinnamon or ceylon has a very low percentage of cinnamaldehyde and the flavour is very minimal, as opposed to the strong flavour of cinnamon we are used to.

So the next time your mind is confusedly toggling between natural and artificial flavours at the yoghurt aisle, make sure you re-evaluate yourself. The ‘100% natural’ label doesn’t promise all the natural goodness you think it does. Just steer clear of any kind of flavouring. Read the label, and try to stick to unprocessed food as far as possible.


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