What Do ‘Natural’ and ‘Artificial’ Flavors Really Mean?

[UltraVid id=161 ]if somebody gives you the choice between two tasty looking snack cakes but one is labeled naturally flavored and the other artificially flavored most people would probably go with the natural one it sounds better who wants to eat food that’s fake I like real food but those labels can be pretty misleading in fact the flavorings could be chemically identical there are rules as to what gets labeled natural or artificial but they’re pretty subtle and you definitely don’t need to avoid artificial flavors to stay healthier be eco-friendly the only reason you might want to opt for the natural version in some cases is it’s just its flavor and the u.s. artificial and natural flavors are defined by the Food and Drug Administration because that’s the agency that gets us a and how companies market and label their foods so first the term flavors itself refers to ingredients that are in the food mainly for their taste rather than any nutritional value so an apple and an apple pie would certainly be adding to the overall flavor but it would not technically be considered a flavor or a flavoring and the FDA considers something a natural flavor if it comes from a plant or animal that source could be virtually anything fruit bark herbs veggies meats the list is long but if it’s made from a plant or animal its natural if not its artificial it does get a little more complicated than that but in the vast majority of cases the difference between the two is only the source we’re sticking to the specifics of the us here but plenty of other countries differentiate these flavors along the same lines so you see similar claims on their food packaging seems simple enough but if you think about how we experience flavor you can see why this whole binary system the FDA has cooked up is not necessarily all that useful because what makes your favorite chocolate chip cookies so delicious comes down to the molecules you taste and smell not where those molecules come from they’re chemicals whether they come from natural sources or are made from scratch in a lab and in many cases the molecules in natural and artificial flavors are exactly the same down to the placement of each atom in bond that’s because for a lot of common flavors we know the main chemical behind them and whether you purify it from through to make it synthetically a compound as a compound as a compound take the vanilla you might use when you bake cookies the main flavor component of vanilla and the one that we recognize is having that sweet characteristic taste is a chemical called vanillin you can naturally extract it from vanilla beans by soaking them in water and alcohol or you can make the exact same chemical in the lab if you go to the all-natural root expect to pay big bucks though because vanilla beans are the fruits of finicky tropical orchids they’re a huge pain to grow and harvest and vanilla is the world’s most popular flavor we cannot grow enough beans to flavor everything we want using only the real stuff there is another natural way to get vanilla flavor with something called a cast aureum but that’s not likely to be a fan favorite that’s because it comes from the castor sacs of beavers which are located down near their tails basically flavoring via beaver but milking beavers for their secretions is not exactly a high-volume industry either so castoreum is too expensive to put in most foods but in the lab you can make this same vanillin in huge batches and for much less money by doing some fancy chemistry on paper pulp or petroleum derivatives that may sound less appetizing than getting it from beans but remember the molecule you get at the end is exactly the same and that’s how we’re able to vanilla fie most of the foods we eat so maybe don’t write off artificial vanilla just because it’s not natural you’ll save some big bucks then there are also some misconceptions about the environmental impact counterintuitive as it might sound natural flavorings aren’t always so great for nature they can have much bigger environmental footprints than their artificial counterparts take masuo lactone a chemical that tastes like coconut which you can find in the bark of certain trees in Southeast Asia the tricky part is if you strip the bark to get it you killed the tree so as much as we might want to have that lovely pina colada flavor the natural version is really inefficient and unsustainable whereas synthetic chemists can whip up Masaya lactone in the lab no tree stripping necessary granted artificial flavorings aren’t perfect for the planet either they’re often made from oil and can require special materials that aren’t environmentally friendly production can also create waste water still that’s usually better than killing entire groves of trees or going through thousands of kilo a fruit in search of specific flavor compounds there is one major downside to keeping things strictly in the lab though the taste because while synthetic vanillin is the same molecule you’ll find in the stuff from vanilla beans real vanilla has hundreds of other compounds that subtly changed the flavor artificial vanilla is a pretty good substitute because around 80% of vanilla flavor comes from that one vanillin compound most people can’t tell the difference but other flavors are much harder to replicate artificial strawberry might be delicious for example but if you think about it it doesn’t really taste like strawberries that’s because you simply can’t reproduce that flavor very well with one or two chemicals it’s super complex so the purity you get with artificial methods may sometimes make for less sophisticated flavors on the other hand it also means that those flavors are better known to scientists and more rigorously tested if this runs counter to your intuition you’re not alone packet is proudly proclaiming no artificial flavors are trying to appeal to the common feeling that substances from mother nature are inherently safer and better than ones invented and produced by people that’s called the naturalistic fallacy but nature isn’t infallible and there’s all kinds of stuff out there that’s natural but will also super kill you just because the flavoring comes from a plant or animal doesn’t mean it’s safer or healthier which is why US flavor regulations applied to both natural and artificial flavors it’s a system called generally recognized as safe or grass basically back in the mid 20th century the FDA decided that food additives should be tested although they could be exempted from review if experts already agreed that the substance was safe since the rules took full effect in the late 1950s just two flavors have been banned one natural and one artificial calamus which comes from a plant known as sweet root and cinema land throttle ate a synthetic compound that gives a grape or cherry flavor some flavorings have raised other types of health flags like diacetyl the artificial buttery flavoring and microwave popcorn if it’s inhaled in extremely large amounts like if you work in a popcorn factory and don’t use protective equipment it can cause a lung disease known as popcorn lung but eating it isn’t the problem so we still use it in theory it’s still possible that some flavors we use have minor negative health effects we just don’t know about even with this testings one complication is that the evidence is summarized by an industry group but since the rules apply to both types of flavours there’s no reason to be extra suspicious of the artificial ones another part of artificial flavorings bad reputation comes from the fact that it’s in processed foods which are less healthy for you they’re often high in sugar and fat while also being low in fiber and nutrients so that’s not the flavorings fault and of course natural flavoring is used for the exact same thing perhaps the most misleading example of this is orange juice Americans used to get most of their orange juice from concentrate but these days we tend to buy it in cartons where the juice doesn’t need to be diluted it seems like a fresher option and companies have marketed it that way to get a premium price but the juice isn’t as fresh as they make it sound because of the realities of large-scale production the juice ends up sitting in tanks for months at a time to keep it from spoiling producers pasteurize it and also remove all the oxygen in a process called d aeration to be fair that processing is important to keep the juice safe to drink but it also removes a bunch of the nicer flavor compounds that make freshly squeezed juice so refreshing the juice might not be from concentrate but companies still reef Laver it right before it’s put in the carton with what people in the industry called juice packs these packs are a mix of flavors usually from oranges orange oil or orange essence so technically they have natural sources so that doesn’t mean the flavor is coming from freshly squeezed orange juice or that the juice is somehow less processed and healthier because the flavorings are natural once you find out what the terms natural and artificial really mean you start to see this type of misleading marketing everywhere but if you think it’s confusing now just wait a few years because biotech is getting in on flavorings blurring the lines even more companies are trying to come up with new ways to make flavors that still count as natural under current labeling regulations even though the source might be bacteria or yeast rather than any recognizable plant or animal with genetic engineering you can program microbes to produce certain flavor molecules than isolate the molecules and use them just like other flavorings that could be a more efficient and eco-friendly solution in some cases especially for hard to source flavor compounds but in a way it would make the labeling claims on food packaging even more meaningless like is that all-natural vanilla flavor from vanilla beans or a very special strain of yeast if you wanted the natural stuff for a more nuanced flavor you’d have no way of knowing what you were getting for now just don’t be fooled by claims that’s sticking to natural flavors is healthier or better for the environment tastes and flavors are based on chemistry and a lot of the time the artificial ones are just as good thanks for watching this episode of scishow