Do You Know the Difference Between Artificial and Natural Flavors in Food?

CC BY 2.0. nomadic lass

According to a report by the Environmental Working Group, natural flavour is not much better than artificial flavor. Read on to find out why.

A growing number of American consumers are opting for “natural” food additives and staying away from artificial ones. Earlier this year, I reported for TreeHugger that nearly one-quarter of U.S. shoppers reported checking food labels in 2013 to avoid buying anything with artificial additives – a 15 percent increase from the year before.

The Environmental Working Group, however, has a report that might surprise and disappoint many shoppers. When it comes to artificial and natural flavors, there’s not much difference. The word “natural” is thrown around with as much reckless abandon by the food industry as it is by the cosmetics industry – and we all know how unregulated that is. The presence of natural flavor makes a product look more appealing to customers, but it doesn’t mean much.

The biggest difference between artificial and natural flavors is that the latter must be derived from nature, whether it’s plant or animal material, while artificial flavors are synthesized entirely in a lab. Despite its natural origins, the EWG says that a natural flavor often contains far more complex chemical mixtures than artificial flavors, which are relatively simple by comparison.

Natural flavors still contain solvents, emulsifiers, and preservatives, all of which are lumped into the category of “incidental additives” and are not required to be disclosed by food manufacturers. The EWG reports:

“Flavor extracts and food ingredients that have been derived from genetically engineered crops may also be labeled ‘natural’ because the FDA has not yet fully defined what the term ‘natural’ means.”

As a result of the lack of notable difference between the two, the EWG gives artificial and natural flavors the same rating in its Food Scores database. The only flavor additive that gets a slightly better score is “organic natural” flavor, which is subject to some tighter regulations that just plain natural flavor. “[It] must have been produced without synthetic solvents, carriers and artificial preservatives.”

The takeaway point is that added flavors – which are actually created by professional flavorists with the intention of being addictive – are best avoided. Until the food industry is forced to give full disclosure of everything that’s added to food, you might as well stay away. You’ll be healthier in the long run by eating non-processed, fresh food and getting all your true natural flavor straight from the source.