Difference Between Natural and Artificial Flavors

Same Chemicals, Different Origins

Artificial flavoring usually is the same chemical as the natural flavoring, just made in a lab.
Artificial flavoring usually is the same chemical as the natural flavoring, just made in a lab. Peter Dressel, Getty Images

If you read the labels on food, you'll see the words "natural flavoring" or "artificial flavoring". Natural flavoring must be good, while artificial flavoring is bad, right? Not so fast! Let's take a look at what natural and artificial really mean...

There are two ways to look at natural and artificial flavors. First, you have the formal definition of an artificial flavoring, as defined by the Code of Federal Regulations:

... a natural flavor is 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.

Anything else is considered artificial. That covers a lot of ground.

In practice, most natural and artificial flavors are exactly the same chemical compounds, differing only by their source. Both natural and artificial chemicals are processed in a lab to ensure purity.

Safety of Natural Versus Artificial Flavors

Is natural better or safer than artificial? Not necessarily. For example, diacetyl is the chemical in butter that makes it taste "buttery".

It's added to some microwave popcorn to make it butter-flavored and is listed on the label as an artificial flavoring. Whether the flavor comes from real butter or is made in a lab, when you heat diacetyl in a microwave oven, the volatile chemical enters the air, where you can breathe it into your lungs.

Regardless of the source, this can cause health problems.

In some cases, natural flavor might be more dangerous than artificial flavoring. For example, natural flavor extracted from almonds can contain toxic cyanide. The artificial flavor has the taste, without the risk of contamination by the undesirable chemical.

Can You Taste the Difference?

In other cases, you can taste a world of difference between natural and artificial flavors. When a single chemical (artificial flavoring) is used to mimic a whole food, flavor is affected. For example, I'll bet you can taste the difference between blueberry muffins made with real blueberries versus muffins made with artificial blueberry flavor or real strawberry ice cream versus artificially flavored strawberry ice cream. A key molecule might be present, but the true flavor may be more complex. In other cases, the artificial flavor might not capture the essence of the flavor you expect. Grape flavoring is a classic example here. Artificial grape flavor tastes nothing like grapes you eat, but the reason is because that molecule comes from Concord grapes, not table grapes, so it's not the taste most people are used to eating.

It's worth noting a natural flavor must be labeled as an artificial flavor, even if it comes from natural sources, if it is added to a product to impart a flavor that isn't already present.

So, if you add blueberry flavor, from real blueberries, to a raspberry pie, the blueberry would be an artificial flavoring.

The Bottom Line

The take-home message here is that both natural and artificial flavors are highly processed in a lab. Pure flavors are chemically indistinguishable, where you would not be able to tell them apart. Natural and artificial flavors diverge when artificial flavors are used to try to simulate complex natural flavors rather than one single chemical compound. Natural or artificial flavors may be safe or dangerous, on a case by case basis. The complex chemicals, both healthful and harmful, are missing from any purified flavoring compared with the whole food.

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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Difference Between Natural and Artificial Flavors." ThoughtCo, Jul. 26, 2016, thoughtco.com/difference-between-natural-and-artificial-flavors-607435. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2016, July 26). Difference Between Natural and Artificial Flavors. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/difference-between-natural-and-artificial-flavors-607435 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Difference Between Natural and Artificial Flavors." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/difference-between-natural-and-artificial-flavors-607435 (accessed November 23, 2017).