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What's in Your Food

How 'Natural' in Natural Flavoring

We all know the responsible thing to do is read the food labels before you buy groceries, but how do you really know which foods to avoid? Some of the ingredients we see are straightforward, but others are vague. How many people really know what the terms natural flavoring and artificial flavoring really mean.

The groceries available for purchase are regulated by the FDA According to the FDA "The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means 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." To understand what natural flavoring is, we need to understand quite a few other terms.

Essential oils are made by distilling the liquid from a substance and separating the oil from the water.

A resin is a substance obtained from the gum or sap of a tree.

Oleoresin is a combination of essential oils and a resin.

Extracts are made by soaking something flavorful in alcohol for an extended period

Protein hydrolysate is produced by boiling food in hydrochloric acid then neutralizing it with sodium hydroxide

Enzymolysis is basically another word for fermentation

We can see that there are quite a few ways to produce natural flavoring. The main thing you need to know is that the main ingredient is something that most people would recognize as a food it has just been boiled, soaked, distilled or fermented to extract the flavor.

In contrast, artificial flavoring is anything that is used for flavoring that is not natural flavoring. So natural flavorings are made from food and artificial flavors are made from things that are not food. Either one can be created in a lab.

What is artificial flavoring exactly? The FDA just tells us that it's anything that is not natural flavoring. For the most part, artificial flavors are made of things called esters. Esters can be composed of a mix of 1300 different chemicals that the FDA has deemed safe. The companies that produce artificial flavoring do not have to disclose their proprietary chemical formulas if the substances they are using have been deemed safe. It is very difficult to know exactly what goes into producing artificial flavoring what we do know is that for the flavoring to taste like the real thing it must contain pretty much the same compounds. Flavorist have methods of analyzing which chemical compounds are contained in foods and then combining the same chemicals to create the flavoring. Some of these methods include fractional distillation and vapor phase chromatography.  It sounds complicated but, it is easier for large companies to create artificial flavorings by obtaining isolated chemical compounds and combine them to create flavors than it is to extract the flavors compounds from the actual food. 

Ironically artificial flavors can be safer than natural flavors because nothing that is deemed harmful can be used in artificial flavoring. Some foods do have naturally occurring compounds that are indeed harmful. You don't really need to worry about your food’s flavorings. Artificial and natural flavorings alike have little or no effect on how nutritious a food is.

Some people may wonder why foods have to have added flavoring at all. The flavoring compounds are necessary because processes that make foods last longer such as canning and freezing often reduce the natural levels of flavoring in food.  Some foods beverages and candies are obviously made with artificial flavoring because without the artificial flavoring no one would consume the product. Plain gelatin does not have an appealing flavor by itself. Most carbonated beverages would be completely unpalatable without artificial and natural flavorings. 

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