When you think about whether a food is healthy or not, you likely consider whether or not it has the word “artificial” in the ingredients list. Most of us – including some major brands and restaurant chains – categorize artificial flavors in the list of ingredients to stay far away from. But what exactly are artificial flavors in food? And should you be avoiding them? Here’s everything you need to know about artificial flavors and your health:
What are artificial flavors and how are they made?
According to the FDA, a natural flavor is the essential oil or compound 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.” Artificial flavors are any flavorings added that don’t meet this criteria.
All flavors, whether naturally present in food or artificially created, are made of chemical compounds. For example, much of the distinguishable scent of cinnamon comes from the compound cinnamaldehyde, but hundreds of other chemical compounds add to the flavor as well. Similarly, much of the flavor of vanilla comes from the compound vanillin, but other chemical compounds contribute complexity to the flavor of vanilla.
When natural flavors are produced from these foods, the chemical compounds that give flavor (such as cinnamaldehyde and vanillin, and other contributing compounds) are extracted and concentrated from the foods. When artificial flavors are produced, the chemical compounds that give flavor are synthetically produced. The resulting flavor molecules are chemically identical, they just come from different sources.
Let’s take artificial vs. natural vanilla extract as an example. In natural vanilla extract, the flavor compounds are extracted from vanilla beans and diluted with alcohol. There are over 200 compounds that make up the flavor of natural vanilla. The most notable is vanillin, but hydroxybenzaldehyde, hydroxybenzoic acid, and anisaldehyde also contribute flavor to natural vanilla. If we saw those ingredients on an ingredients list we’d probably freak out, but they’re all just chemical compounds found naturally in vanilla! To create artificial vanilla extract, the few key flavor molecules that give the most iconic vanilla taste are created in a lab and diluted with alcohol. Since the most significant flavor compounds are molecularly identical to those found in natural vanilla, the flavor will be similar. But since artificial flavoring is missing over 100 “supporting” compounds, it will have much less complexity.
How are artificial flavors listed on ingredients labels?
Most commonly, you’ll just see the words “artificial flavors” on the ingredients label without any more detail. Yes, that means that your food could have any number of chemical additives in it giving it a certain flavor. But also remember that those chemical compounds are exactly the same as those that would be present if natural flavors were used, the source is just different!
Natural flavors are listed on an ingredients list as “natural flavors” and artificial flavors are listed as “artificial flavors.” Manufacturers aren’t allowed to sneak artificial flavors into products under tricky names like “synthetic vanillin” or “diluted cinnamaldehyde,” so if you’re trying to steer clear of artificial flavors, all you need to do is scan the ingredients list for the words “artificial flavors.”
Health impact of artificial flavors
Since both natural and artificial flavorings are added to foods for flavor purposes rather than for nutritional purposes, neither contribute significant health benefits through vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc. Some flavor compounds, such as cinnamaldehyde, also contribute health benefits – but there currently aren’t any studies comparing the health effects of naturally and synthetically derived cinnamaldehyde.
You may have heard that workers at a microwave popcorn factory have suffered lung issues as a result of breathing in diacetyl, a compound that is used as artificial butter flavoring. That’s enough to many people swear off artificial butter flavor for good, and while that isn’t a bad idea, let’s keep in mind that diacetyl is found in every single dairy product. It’s a chemical compound that gives milk, buttermilk, sour cream, butter, and more their distinctive flavors. When diacetyl is inhaled in large amounts it can be harmful to your lungs – but there is no distinguishment between the harm of naturally derived diacetyl and artificially derived diacetyl. Workers who breathe in a significant amount of natural butter flavor and artificial butter flavor are equally at risk for lung issues because the chemical makeup of the diacetyl is identical. Microwaving popcorn at home (whether naturally or artificially butter-flavored) doesn’t expose you to nearly enough airborne diacetyl to become hazardous. When eaten instead of breathed in, diacetyl causes no issues to your digestive system – whether naturally or artificially produced.
Should you avoid artificial flavors?
The thought of eating chemicals that don’t come from a food source turns many people off. While I don’t recommend that we all go out of our way to consume more artificial flavors, I find that the real issue is that artificial flavorings often go hand in hand with snack foods, candy, and other foods that don’t provide significant nutritional value. There’s no evidence that the artificial flavoring itself is harmful to your health, but the food that it is included in may not be healthful.
Rather than focusing on avoiding artificial flavors, I’d recommend focusing on including healthful, whole foods. If you’re avoiding artificially flavored cookies and chips in exchange for naturally flavored cookies and chips, you’re not necessarily doing yourself any health favors. When you minimize highly processed foods and cook whole foods at home, you consequently avoid artificial flavors.
The bottom line: artificial flavors and your health.
The primary difference between natural and artificial flavors is the source of the chemical compound. Natural and artificial flavor compounds have identical molecular structure, but artificial flavors are created in a lab, rather than isolated from food ingredients. Natural and artificial flavors often taste different because natural flavors include hundreds of compounds that contribute to complex flavor profiles, while artificial flavors pinpoint the most prevalent compounds to create less expensive and less complex flavors that still taste similar to their natural counterparts. That difference hasn’t been proven to have any significant health effects once consumed, although inhalation of large amounts of flavoring has been linked with lung disease.
My concern about artificial flavors is less with their synthetic roots and more with the foods that they’re commonly found in. Processed foods with limited nutritional value aren’t made healthier when natural flavorings are used in place of artificial flavorings. At the same rate, a healthy food like plain yogurt isn’t automatically made unhealthy if a drop of artificial strawberry flavor is added rather than a drop of natural strawberry flavor. Your best bet? Put actual strawberries on your yogurt – you get strawberry flavor in addition to fiber, vitamins, minerals, and more. If your goal is to eat healthfully, I’d recommend focusing on real, whole foods that you can incorporate into your diet, rather than focusing on which specific flavors to avoid.