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Natural verses Artificial Flavors

Whether you're someone who reads ingredient lists regularly or scans them on a more casual basis, chances are you've seen the terms "natural flavors" and "artificial flavors" on food packaging. At a glance, your first reaction may be that anything labeled "natural" can be considered healthy, while ingredients listed as "artificial" are unhealthy. But is that true? What is the difference between those two terms when it comes to food ingredients? 

Everyone wants to eat food that tastes good. Think about the spices in your kitchen—they add brightness, tang, spice, and dimension to the foods you cook. From an industrial standpoint, food manufacturers are focused on selling more products, so they take measures to ensure the products they put on the shelf taste good. 

Unlike those of us that prepare meals at home, and consume them shortly thereafter, food manufacturers have more to consider—it takes time to process & package foods at an industrial scale. Processed food must be packaged, shipped, unpacked, and shelved at the grocery store. Packaged food can sit on shelves for indeterminate periods of time before they're purchased and brought home by consumers, who may leave the food on their own kitchen shelves for a period of time before eating. Fresh ingredients begin to lose flavor over time, so the food industry compensated by introducing additives to keep the food tasting good, days, weeks, or even months after processing. 

These flavor additives are created in industrial labs contracted directly by food manufacturers; the chemical formulations are not made public and are highly confidential, and treated as trade secrets.

According to the Food & Drug Administration, a "natural flavor" is described as

"the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of 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."

Any flavor that was derived from ingredients than those listed in the clause above is considered "artificial". 

The only difference between natural and artificial flavorings is the source of the original compounds used to make the flavoring.

Surprisingly, an artificial and a natural flavor may be identical in chemical structure, but be distinctly different based on the source—like if one was processed from a natural source, but the other was synthesized in a lab.

Artificial flavorings are typically cheaper to source & manufacture than their natural counterparts. They are more stable and usually less chemically complex than natural flavors, which is why food manufacturers favor their use. 

So what does that mean for your health? Artificial flavors are not necessarily unhealthy, but if you have food sensitivities or allergies, it's smart may to products containing avoid artificial flavors since the ingredients used to make the flavor are undisclosed. 

If you're sensitive to MSG, have food allergies, or follow a strict diet like vegan or vegetarian, you may want to pay special attention to the phrase "natural flavors" too—it's possible that the natural flavors were derived from glutamates, animal products, or other potential allergens, so it may be best to avoid altogether. 

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