During my recent Nutrition and Immunity workshop, one of the questions that came up was ‘what’s the difference between natural and artificial flavours in foods, and should we be avoiding both?’ It’s a great question and one that warrants a little more exploration. After all, ‘natural flavours’ certainly sound like a healthier alternative, but why not simply list what the flavours actually are?
When you start reading ingredients panels on food items, you start to realise just how ubiquitous ‘natural flavours’ are – they pop up in everything from sauces, to pickles, to biscuits, to juice and more. Usually this is to enhance, improve or change the flavour of the food in some way, and in some cases, it’s simply easier and cheaper to use ‘natural’ or ‘artificial’ flavours, rather than a real food ingredient itself. For example, many vanilla flavoured items list “natural vanilla flavour” in the ingredients, often because vanilla flavouring is cheaper and stronger than vanilla extract itself. With modern day mass production, processing and storage of foodstuffs, there is inevitably going to be some flavour loss, so natural and artificial flavours provide manufacturers with a cheap, easy and convenient means of reviving some of that original taste!
So what is the difference between natural and artificial flavours?
Well, for something to be listed as a ‘natural flavour’, it must be derived from anything of plant or animal origin – this can be as simple as a mix of spices, to something more unusual – such as castoreum, a substance derived from the castor sacs (akin to anal glands) of a beaver. Castoreum is used in both food and perfume manufacturing as a natural flavouring agent, often to improve or enhance vanilla or raspberry flavours. As you can see, natural flavourings are not always as innocent as they might seem! In contrast, artificial flavours are synthetically derived, meaning they’re made in a lab. Whilst natural flavours are typically more expensive than their synthetic counterparts, manufacturers often choose to bear this cost, as “natural flavour” is certainly more appealing to the average consumer than the phrase “artificial flavour”.
Interestingly, according to the Environmental Working Group, natural flavours are often a combination of many, many different chemicals derived from products of ‘natural origin’, and thus often contain more complex chemical mixtures than their artificial flavouring counterparts. This is not to say artificial flavouring agents are preferable however – sadly questions have been raised over the safety regulations governing the use of these agents, in particular, their long-term or cumulative effects on human health, especially in the quantities and combinations individuals may be exposed to with modern day diets.
Another factor to consider is the fact that many flavours (natural or artificial) have additional excipients added to the mix – things like emulsifiers, solvents, preservatives and flavour modifiers. These components can make up 80-90% of the mixture, and yet do not have to be declared as they are considered ‘incidental additives’. These means when you see the words ‘natural’ or ‘artificial flavour’ on a label, not only do we not know what the flavour itself is derived from, but we also don’t know what other additives, solvents and preservatives it might contain. For people with food allergies, this can be a major problem! Whilst certain allergens (such as wheat and soy) must be listed in the allergen statement if present in any amount, individuals with more unusual allergies (such as to certain preservatives) may be at risk of a reaction when consuming foods containing unspecified flavouring agents.
This can also pose an issue for individuals with religious or ethical dietary restrictions – for example, whilst castoreum is considered a ‘natural flavour’, it is not considered kosher, nor vegan, and yet many individuals would be consuming this ‘natural flavouring agent’ whilst unaware of where it comes from. For these reasons, more and more consumer awareness groups such as the EWG and NRDC are campaigning for greater transparency in food labelling, in particular, when it comes to the use of flavouring agents. After all, consumers have the right to know what is in the foods they consume, and should be able to make informed choices when it comes to ingredients, potential allergens and substances they may wish to eschew.
For now, we encourage our patients to avoid both natural and artificial flavouring agents where possible, and to contact the company directly if you would like to know more about the flavouring agents used in their products. In some cases, you might find their vanilla flavour is an innocuous mix of vanilla powder and vanilla extract, but other times, the truth might be a little more disheartening! Hopefully, with increased consumer awareness, advocacy and petition, we’ll see increased action from both policy makers and food manufacturers in regards to food labelling, enabling greater transparency in the future.