Like many shoppers, I find food labels confusing. In most circumstances, the implications of “artificial” and natural” are pretty clear. But once words hit food labels, the meaning starts to blur. I often wonder, with the prevalence of food flavoring in our diets today, what it means to consume natural versus artificial flavors. Is one type of flavoring necessarily better for you when you’re not actually eating the food? While “artificial” generally sounds fake and bad, artificially-flavored products don’t necessarily taste less “real” than their naturally-flavored counterparts. In the world of food flavoring, what do manufacturers really mean by natural and artificial flavors?
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Code of Federal Regulations (Title 21), the term “natural flavor” essentially has an edible source (i.e. animals and vegetables). Artificial flavors, on the other hand, have an inedible source, which means you can be eating anything from petroleum to paper pulp processed to create the chemicals that flavor your food. For example, Japanese researcher Mayu Yamamoto discovered a way to extract vanillin, the compound responsible for the smell and flavor of vanilla, from cow poop in 2006, as reported by Business Insider.Regardless of the source, “There is no intrinsic nutritional value in flavor,” he said. So whether a food product gets its flavor from vanilla or paper pulp makes no difference in terms of nutrition.
Emma Boast—Program Director of the Museum of Food and Drink and curator of the upcoming exhibition “Flavor: Making It and Faking It”—agreed. “We don’t have any evidence distinguishing the benefits of natural and artificial food flavoring at this point,” she remarked. Although the odds are, for instance, much higher of finding artificial food flavoring in potato chips than in broccoli the sugar and starch-rich component of the snack may have a much more negative dietary effect than the artificiality of the flavoring.What’s more, “Natural and artificial flavors can be made from exactly the same chemicals that come from edible and inedible sources,” she added. For example, you can have a “natural” lemon flavor made from citral, which is a chemical found in lemon peel. You can also have an “artificial” lemon flavor made from citral, which is processed from petrochemicals. The only difference between these two chemicals is how they were synthesized. Your sensory experience of each will be exactly the same, because they are the same chemical. The most important thing to note, according to Boast, is that “natural” citral does not need to come from lemons; it can come from plants like lemongrass and lemon myrtle, which also contain citral. In short, the word “natural” does not necessarily mean a product is better for you, or more sustainable.
In this case, how can we, as consumers, become better informed about reading these labels? Are there any specific details we can look out for when considering our food purchases?