Natural vs. artificial flavorings, what’s the deal?
Both of these are terms regulated by the FDA (the term "all-natural" is a different story). The definition of a natural flavoring is anything derived or extracted 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" . An artificial flavor is anything that is not derived from the items listed above, but rather synthesized in a laboratory. Don't freak out, it's not nearly as scary as it sounds! Read on to find out why.
So which one is healthier or better? Well, the answer to that isn't so simple. The first step is to understand that both natural and artificial flavors are just made up of various chemicals. This is not a bad thing! Everything is made up of chemicals. That banana you had for lunch, that avocado you ate for a snack, you, me, and Oprah are all made of chemicals. Chemicals = not inherently evil. The second step is to understand the basic principles of toxicology, or what the effects of chemicals are at certain doses. For example, we can all agree that ~90 milligrams of Vitamin C a day is healthy for you . However, 10,000 milligrams a day will give you diarrhea, nausea, headaches, cramps and possibly kidney stones [3,4]. As the saying goes, the dose makes the poison .
You catch all that? Good.
Now back to the original question of natural vs artificial. An argument could be made that the artificial flavorings are safer because all the chemicals allowed in an artificial flavor have been tested for toxicity levels [6,7,8,9]. Chemicals used in a natural flavoring do not have to face the same kind of scrutiny, although there is significant overlap in the types of chemicals used in both kinds of flavorings. Just because a source is natural does not mean it is safe for human consumption (all natural snake venom anyone?). I'm exaggerating of course, but you get the point. These things need to be tested and evaluated, no matter what the source.
Another point to understand is that some artificial and natural flavors have the exact same chemical structure.
The. Exact. Same.
Other times, the chemical structures of an artificial flavor may be simpler than its natural counterpart. This is due to a flavorist eliminating any secondary chemicals that make minimal contributions to the primary flavor when s/he is trying to synthetically mimic a naturally occurring flavor compound .
Questions of sustainability can be raised as well. Take coconut flavoring as an example. Coconut flavor is dependent on a chemical called Massoia Lactone which comes from the bark of the Massoia tree . To collect this chemical for use in a natural flavoring, the bark of the Massoia tree is stripped which ends up killing it . This process is far more costly and damaging than if the Massoia Lactone had just been synthesized in a lab. I'll stress this again, both sources have the exact same chemical structure.
From an overall health perspective, an argument could be made against using either of these methods, as both artificial and natural flavors can be employed to make foods hyper-palatable which could lead to overconsumption. This is not the case for all foods, but we cannot forget the primary motivator of food companies is to make money, and added flavorings are a tool they can employ to get us to buy more of their product.
I hope your minds has been sufficiently blown and I have reduced your chemophobia a bit. As some added food for thought, I've included a few pictures from James Kennedy’s series, Ingredients of All-Natural Foods .
Please tune in for the next edition of The Nutrition Overlords Knowledge Bombs® - The All-Natural Label: What In The Fresh Hell Does That Even Mean?!?!
Side Note – for a full list of approved synthetic flavoring substances see reference 11 and 12.