The Difference Between Natural And Artificial Flavors

“How can I describe it? Good food is like music you can taste, color you can smell. There is excellence all around you. You need only to be aware to stop and savor it.” —Chef Auguste Gusteau, Ratatouille (2007)

In A Nutshell

For a flavor to be considered natural it has to meet only two criteria: It needs to be in the food only for the purpose of flavor, and it must be derived from a natural source such as a plant or animal. An artificial flavor is basically anything that doesn’t meet those criteria. However, the chemicals are often the same ones found in nature and simply aren’t derived using a “natural” process. This can also allow a flavorist to choose only the chemicals needed for flavor and leave out anything toxic that might have been in the natural product.

The Whole Bushel

Natural flavors are believed by many to be better for you, but this is not necessarily always the case. The truth is that a natural flavor can be almost anything as long as the circumstances of how it was derived fit the right criteria. The FDA defines natural flavor as basically anything that can be derived from a plant or animal product or really through any natural method, solvent, etc. This sounds safe until you realize the implications. If the ingredient was derived in any way from nature and it has no nutritional value, they can simply hide it under the blanket of “natural flavors.” Of course, this means your food could have something nasty like beaver juice in it without you knowing about it. And worse yet, some naturally derived flavors really aren’t particularly good for you. “Natural” doesn’t always mean “safe.”

Artificial flavors, on the other hand, are basically anything that isn’t a natural flavor. That is admittedly not a very helpful definition, but the basic idea is that artificial flavors are made by combining various chemicals in a lab until the appropriate flavor combination is hit upon. There are people who actually do this stuff for a living and they are called “flavorists,” although we think “mad food scientist” might be a better title. However, what they do isn’t as evil as some people think.

Flavorists figure out what chemicals make up the flavor of certain delicious foods and then use those same chemicals to make their artificial flavor. In some cases this means the flavoring process can actually be better for you. You see, the natural foods they are trying to mimic often have many different chemicals, some of which aren’t necessarily good for you. When making an artificial flavor, they can use only the chemicals they need for the flavor itself and avoid the rest. And these chemicals are often no different from ones found in natural sources. The difference lies solely in the fact that they are created synthetically as opposed to being derived directly from a natural source.

Show Me The Proof

US Food and Drug Administration: Code of Federal Regulations Title 21
Scientific American: What is the difference between artificial and natural flavors?
Washington Post: What’s Natural?