by David Andrews, Senior Scientist
If you cook food at home, odds are you have a spice rack with 10, 20 or maybe even 50 different herbs and spices. I know I do.
But processed food doesn’t rely just on those simple ingredients for its flavor. “Natural flavor” is the fourth most common ingredient listed in EWG’s Food Scores, which rates more than 80,000 foods on their degree of nutrition, ingredient concerns and processing concerns.
In other words, “natural flavor” finds its way into more than a fifth of that roster of 80,000 foods, with only salt, water and sugar mentioned more frequently on food labels.
But what is “natural flavor” exactly? Are natural flavors really better than artificial flavors? The simple fact that McDonald’s says its “natural beef flavor” is derived from wheat and milk should make you wonder.
I have always felt partial to natural flavors because I tend to prefer the outdoors, nature and things and people who are not artificial. But I have never really had any solid information to back up my instincts. After digging into some food chemistry and food engineering tomes about natural and artificial flavors, I found the results very surprising.
The bottom line: natural and artificial flavors really aren’t that different. And those “natural flavors” can actually contain synthetic chemicals! You’re right to be skeptical of the word “natural” – it’s often thrown around loosely. I avoid both “synthetic” and “natural” flavors when I can, by minimizing my consumption of processed foods.
A great deal of scientific engineering and design time goes into crafting flavors for processed foods. This specialized work is done by just 500 professional flavorists who are responsible for the majority of flavors in nearly all food processed in the U.S.
How a food tastes is largely determined by the volatile chemicals in the food. Chemicals that give food a specific smell are extremely important because smell makes up 80 to 90 percent of the sense of taste. In processed food, this mixture of chemicals is called “flavor.” The same mixture of chemicals would be called “fragrance” if it were found in cleaning products, perfumes or cosmetics. The difference between the two is small, and the companies that produce these secret mixtures are often exactly the same.
The cost of the flavors in a food can be around half a penny per serving, but processed food is such a big market that flavoring has become big business too. The annual sales of the fragrance and flavor industry is estimated at $24 billion. It is controlled by a few large flavor houses, notably Givaudan, Firmenich, IFF and Symrise.
Food products are flavored to increase sales by making mouthwatering tastes, making packaged food taste fresh, giving a processed food a bolder taste than a comparable natural food and making the taste short-lived so that you eat more. In a 2011 interview with Morley Safer of 60 Minutes, two flavor scientists from Givaudan said that one of their goals was making food addictive.
(Givaudan) Streich: In our fruit flavors we're talking about, we want a burst in the beginning. And maybe a finish that doesn't linger too much so that you want more of it.
(Givaudan) Hassel: And you don't want a long linger, because you're not going to eat more of it if it lingers.
(60 Minutes) Safer: Aha. So I see, it's going to be a quick fix. And then--
(Givaudan) Hassel: Have more.
(60 Minutes) Safer: And then have more. But that suggests something else?
(Givaudan) Hassel: Exactly.
(60 Minutes) Safer: Which is called addiction?
(Givaudan) Hassel: Exactly.
(60 Minutes) Safer: You're tryin' to create an addictive taste?
(Givaudan) Hassel: That's a good word.
There are other reasons to flavor foods. When foods are pasteurized for safety, many of the volatile chemicals evaporate or degrade. To make a product like orange juice taste fresh after pasteurization, these chemicals have to be restored. They dupe your taste buds and smell receptors into believing you are drinking fresh orange juice when it really may be rather old.
Flavors are complex mixtures that sometimes comprise more than 100 chemicals. In addition to flavors themselves, these mixtures contain chemicals that have other functions. Solvents, emulsifiers, flavor modifiers and preservatives often make up 80 to 90 percent of the mixture.
The main difference between a natural and artificial flavor is the origin of the flavor chemicals. Natural flavors must be derived from plant or animal material. Artificial flavors are synthesized in the lab. The actual chemicals in these two kinds of flavors may be exactly the same: the chemical structures of the individual molecules may be indistinguishable.
The Food and Drug Administration defines natural flavors as substances derived from animals or plants and artificial flavors are those that are not. An artificial flavor must be comprised of one of the nearly 700 FDA-allowed flavoring chemicals or food additives categorized as “generally recognized as safe,” or any of 2000 other chemicals not directly regulated by FDA but sanctioned for use by an industry group, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States. Most of these chemicals exist as natural flavors or can be extracted from them.
From a food manufacturer’s perspective, the difference between a natural and artificial flavor often comes down to cost and consumer preference. A natural flavor almost always costs much more than an artificial flavor. Still, food makers are often willing to pay because they know that some consumers prefer “natural” flavors.
Interestingly, the chemical mixtures that comprise artificial flavors are often simpler than “natural” flavors. The reason: artificial flavors contain fewer chemicals than natural ones, which can be mixtures of several hundred chemicals.
But are those artificial flavors safe? The flavor industry argues that artificial flavors undergo stricter safety evaluations than natural flavors. The truth is that safety evaluations for all food additives and flavor additives are not as thorough as they should be.
The natural or artificial emulsifiers, solvents and preservatives in flavor mixtures are called “incidental additives.” That means the manufacturer does not have to disclose their presence on food labels. Food manufacturers can use a natural solvent such as ethanol in their flavors, but the FDA also permits them to use synthetic solvents such as propylene glycol. Flavor extracts and food ingredients that have been derived from genetically engineered crops may also be labeled “natural” because the FDA has not fully defined what the term “natural” means.
Paradoxically, the FDA requires a natural flavor to be labeled as an artificial flavor if it is added to a food not to reinforce a flavor already present but to lend a new taste. For instance, adding naturally-derived blueberry flavor to a plain muffin would require that the blueberry flavor be labeled “artificial flavor.”
Take apple flavor. It can be quite complex and vary from one apple variety to another. While the solvent, emulsifier and preservatives make up the majority of the ingredient, it is the flavoring substances that provide the characteristic taste and smell. Fenaroli's Handbook of Flavor Ingredients lists a large number of chemicals that can be used to approximate the taste of an apple.
When you see the word “flavor” on a food label, you have no clue what chemicals, carrier solvents or preservatives have been added to the food. For people with unusual food allergies (the eight most common food allergens must be labeled when used in flavorings) or those on restricted diets, this can be a serious concern. EWG has pressed for greater disclosure in personal care products and cleaners containing secret mixtures of chemicals hidden on the label as fragrance. We plan to campaign for transparency on the ingredients used in foods.
For “organic foods,” the natural flavor must have been produced without synthetic solvents, carriers and artificial preservatives. According to the Natural Flavor Questionnaire from a large organic certifier, the additives not allowed in natural flavor in organic foods include propylene glycol, polyglycerol esters of fatty acids, mono- and di-glycerides, benzoic acid, polysorbate 80, medium chain triglycerides, BHT, BHA, triacetin. In “foods made with organic ingredients,” food processors have greater leeway to use synthetic extraction or carrier solvents.
EWG thought long and hard about whether to score natural and artificial flavors differently. Ultimately we saw little basis for a sharp scoring distinction and decided to give the same score to both “natural” and “artificial flavors,” with one exception. We gave a slightly better score to the natural flavors found in certified organic food since these are required to be produced without synthetic solvents, carrier systems or preservatives.
All ingredients containing the generic term “flavor” are classified as food additives of “lower concern” in the EWG’s Food Scores database because they don’t disclose specific flavor chemicals and solvents.
Certain chemicals used in both natural and artificial flavors or in artificial flavors alone are very toxic at higher doses. These specific chemicals are not a higher health concern because very low concentrations occur in finished foods.
Overall, thousands of flavor chemicals are being added to foods without FDA oversight or review of the available safety information or the concentration used. The food additive review system is broken.
We at EWG believe food companies should make full disclosure of their ingredients and should not use vague terms like “flavors” or “fragrances.” People have a right to know what is in their food. We believe processed food makers should not manipulate flavors to whet people’s appetites for unhealthy foods nor encourage people to overeat.
What kind of flavor do I look for? I plan to use my spice rack as much as possible.
The Eat Well Guide helps consumers find locally grown and sustainably produced food. Listings include farms, restaurants, stores, farmers' markets, and CSAs throughout the United States.Visit the Eat Well Guide
Sign up to receive email updates, action alerts, healthy eating tips, promotions to support our work and more from EWG! You can opt out at any time.