McDonalds used seven percent cottonseed oil combined with 93 percent beef tallow to give their French fries the consistent and distinctive taste that the public grew to love. Years later the cholesterol scare took stage front and McDonalds looked at other alternatives to frying potatoes in beef tallow. They switched to 100 percent vegetable oil and added a natural flavor. People buy food items based on appearance – their visual sense. They keep coming back to the same food item to eat based on taste. Processed foods make up about 90 percent of the total food market. Natural or artificial flavor is added to offset the loss of flavor through the various manufacturing, canning, freezing and dehydration processes.
The Code of Federal Regulations defines a natural flavor as the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product 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. Artificial flavorings are those not contained in the Code of Federal Regulations defined as natural flavor.
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Artificial flavors vs Natural flavors
Source of both
Artificial flavorings may be very close chemically (and should be) to natural flavorings. If you blend the right combinations of chemicals together, you can approximate the natural flavor. The real difference is the source of the materials. Coconut flavorings are derived from the bark of the Massoia tree which grows primarily in Malaysia. If every time you wanted to use a natural coconut flavor in your food process, then eventually the Massoia tree population would be eliminated over time. The cost is extremely high to go to Malaysia, extract the bark, distill the lactone, isolate the end products and ship it back to the manufacturers. The synthetic or artificial flavoring can be made much cheaper without endangering any of the Massoia trees. It is rare to create really new flavors today. Juicy Fruit gum is an example of a flavor that was created.
People have allergies to both natural and artificial flavors. One can eat a whole food – a natural foodstuff right off the vine or out of the ground – and have an allergy, yet be able to eat a similar food product without having that allergy – and vice versa. We taste flavors and smell aromas – both natural and artificial. They activate our taste buds on our tongues and the sensory cells in our noses and give us a hint of what is coming. Most artificial flavors have components of both smell and taste. It is not unusual to modify the smell rather than the flavor to improve the taste of a food product. Likewise, artificial flavors can be added to enhance a natural flavor.
Most artificial flavors are combinations of many chemical groups. There are some artificial flavors that are derived from a fundamental chemical. Examples are: diacetyl for buttery; isoamyl acetate for banana, cinnamic aldehyde for cinnamon, methyl anthranilate for grape; limonene for orange; allyl hexanoate for pineapple, ethylvanillin, for vanilla, methyl salicylate for wintergreen, etc. Some can be combined to give you that special combination that you like, such as cherry vanilla. Natural flavors may contain toxins and may not have a long shelf life – that’s a characteristic of natural food products. Artificial flavors have been tested for safety and storage length. The Food and Drug Administration lists artificial flavorings as ‘generally recognized as safe.’
Some artificial flavors may contain animal by-products or alcohol and may go against some religious and dietary laws. The Kosher Pareve certification identifies natural flavorings free of meat and dairy by-products. The Vegan Society’s Sunflower symbol designates products without animal flavorings. Artificial flavors have to withstand the same cooking processes that whole foods and natural flavorings do so that the end user enjoys the food as it is presented at the table for consumption.
Smell & Taste
Artificial flavors are close to natural flavors in smell and taste, but not exactly the same. They are cheaper to produce and store in bulk. They are as safe as natural flavors for the vast majority of us. Allergies can start and stop for a number of reasons. I was never allergic to tomatoes until the late 80s. I noticed a slight burning sensation after eating a tomato in a salad or by itself. It took me a while to figure out that I had developed an allergy to tomatoes. I stopped eating them for a while and tried one a few years later. Whatever caused my allergy went away and I’ve been able to eat tomatoes ever since without any problems.
Choose the right one
Check the labels of foods you buy to see what they contain. It is not unusual to see ‘artificial flavors’ added, but you probably won’t know exactly what chemicals were used to develop that specific artificial flavor. You have a choice of the whole food or the processed food product. If you are having some health issues with a whole food or a processed food, then changing back and forth from one to another several times might help you isolate the specific ingredients that are causing your problems. Manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to improve their products and reduce their costs. What bothered you several years ago in one product might not be there today – and, a competitor’s product today might be better tasting and cheaper – all because of artificial flavors.
Remember – Choices have consequences.