No matter how we, ordinary shoppers, try to understand food labels, we still find them vague and complicated – especially those who are still starting to be conscious of what’s in the bottle or can. “Natural” and “artificial” are two important but confusing words. It seems that millions of online articles give us millions of definitions as well.
More and more food flavorings (and food coloring) seem to be endemic nowadays and manufacturers are great in advertising their food products that we are easily attracted to them. And then, we see those “natural” and “artificial” flavorings (and colorings) again on the labels.
How do we know that these elements in the processed foods are safe and are not “fake”? While “natural” seems to be “good,” “artificial” seems to be bogus. But as consumers, our concern is our safety, health, and wellness.
In the world of food manufacturers, how do they perceive and understand “natural” and “artificial” colors?
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules that natural flavor contains edible source like vegetables and animals, while artificial flavors include inedible source. This means that you may be eating anything from paper pulp to petroleum that are refined, milled, and processed to produce chemicals of flavorings. Business Insider has published that Mayu Yamamoto has learned a method to distill vanillin from a cow poop in 2006.
Before we jump into conclusions about artificial food flavorings which we may believe is “bad” compared to natural food flavorings, Emma Boast, Director of Museum of Food and Drink, gives us another context. “Natural and artificial flavors can be made from exactly the same chemicals that come from edible and inedible sources,” she explains. This means that you can get the “natural” lemon flavor from citral, a chemical from lemon peel. Or, you may have the “artificial” lemon flavor from citral, a compound produced from petrochemicals. The difference between the two processes is the method used to synthesize them. Our experience of taste for each will be the same since they come from the same chemical. Director Boast wants us to know that “natural” citral may not come from lemons but may come from other lemon plants such as lemon myrtle and lemongrass that contain citral.
In short, “natural” may not be a product better for us or if they are sustainable.
In terms of effects on our health, Director Boast claims that they do not have any substantial proof of identifying the nutritional value of artificial and natural food flavoring as of the moment. There may be instances where we can find more artificial food flavorings in potato chip compared to broccoli. “the sugar and starch-rich component of the snack can be more easily considered as the culprit of the negative dietary effect before the artificiality of the flavoring comes into play,” Director Boast explains.
Gary Reineccius from Food Science and Nutrition – University of Minnesota – agreed and according to him, “There is no intrinsic nutritional value in flavor.” So whether it’s artificial or natural, there is no nutritional difference.”
As consumers, how can we get the right information and understand about all these in the food labels?
Director Boast noted that food manufacturers “don’t disclose the components of flavorings on the ingredients list,” and the “why” is clear: competition in the market.
Food flavors are branded and patented and therefore, food producers do not want to divulge their formulations to their “rivalries.” Another “why” is that the list of ingredients in food flavorings may be too long to be included in the labels.
Hence, the Museum of Food and Drink warns us, the consumers, that we must “consider more philosophically what natural actually means to you. Because when it comes to food labels, aside from a higher cost, the actual difference between natural and artificial flavors is slight,” Director Boast concluded.
Also read our article about salad ingredients that may contain natural and artificial flavorings.