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 chemicallyidentical.
There are rules to what gets labeled “natural ” or “artificial”,
but they’re pretty subtle.
And you definitely don’t need to
avoid artificial flavors to stay healthy or be eco-friendly.
The only reason you might want to opt
for the natural version in some cases is its … just,
In the US, artificial and natural flavors are defined
by the Food and Drug Administration,
because that’s the agency that gets a say
in 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 nutritionalvalue.
So an apple in an apple pie would certainly be adding to the overall flavor,
but it would not technically be considered a flavor or flavoring.
And the FDA considers something a ‘natural’ flavor
if it comes from a plant or animal.
That source could be virtually anything:
水果 树皮 药草 蔬菜 肉类
fruit, bark, herbs, veggies, meats.
The list is long.
But if it’s made from a plant or animal,it’s natural.
If not, it’s 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 specifics of the US here,
but plenty of other countries differentiate
these flavors along the same lines,
so you’ll 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.
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 andbond.
That’s because for a lot of common flavors,
we know the main chemical behind them,
and whether you purify it from fruit or make it synthetically,
a compound is a compound is a compound.
Take the vanilla you might use when you bake cookies.
The main flavor component of vanilla —
and the one we recognize as having that sweet,
characteristic taste — is a chemical calledvanillin.
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 the all-natural route,
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 can not 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 castoreum, 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 butt.
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 the same vanillin in huge batches and for much less money by
doing some fancy chemistry on paper pulp orpetroleum derivatives.
That may sound less appetizing than gettingit from the beans,
but remember: the molecule you get at the end is exactly the same.
And, it’s how we’re able to vanilla-fy 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 aboutthe 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 massoia 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 off the bark to get it,
you kill 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 massoia lactone in the lab,
no tree stripping necessary.
Granted, artificial flavorings aren’t perfectfor the planet either.
They’re often made from oil,
and can require special materials that aren’t environmentally-friendly.
Production can also create wastewater.
Still that’s usually better than killing entire grows
of trees or going through thousands
of kilos of fruit in search of specific flavorcompounds.
There is one major downside to keeping thingsstrictly 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 change 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.
Packages 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 a flavoring comes
from a plant or animal doesn’t mean it’s safer or healthier.
Which is why US flavor regulations apply to both natural and artificial flavors.
It’s a system called Generally RecognizedAs Safe, or GRAS. 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 also known as sweet root;
and cinnamyl anthranilate, 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 in 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 a problem, so we stilluse it.
In theory, it’s still possible
that some flavors we use have minor negative health
effects we just don’t know about, even withthis testing system.
One complication is that the evidence is summarized by an industry group.
But since the rules apply to both types of flavors,
there’s no reason to be extra suspicious
of the artificial ones.
Another part of artificial flavoring’s 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 andnutrients.
But that’s not the flavoring’s fault.
And of course, natural flavoring is used for the exact same thing.
Perhaps the most misleading example of thisis 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 makeit 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
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 re-flavor it right before
it’s put in the carton,
with what people in the industry call juice packs.
The packs are a mix of flavors, usually from oranges,
orange oil, or orange essence.
So technically, they have natural sources.
But 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 may be bacteria or yeast,
rather than any recognizable plant or animal.
With genetic engineering,
you can program microbes to produce certain flavor molecules,
then isolate the molecules and use them justlike 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 the more nuanced flavor,
you’d have no way of knowing
what you were getting.
For now, just don’t be fooled
by claims that 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!
If you’re interested in learning more about flavor chemistry,
you can check out one of our previous episodes,
about 5 chemicals that are in everything you eat.