Commercial food and drink products contain an array of ingredients. The building blocks of a beverage include natural and artificial flavors. Often among the smallest components of a product, these flavor compounds are not to be overlooked—after all, it’s flavor that consumers crave!
Flavor additives are responsible for much of a drink’s sensory profile. They provide consumers the opportunity to enjoy unique flavors they may not otherwise be able to experience in their original form, and they help beverage companies deliver consistent, high-quality experiences with their products.
In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates which ingredients are allowed in consumer goods such as beverages. They provide guidelines for natural and artificial flavors through the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), revised as of April 1, 2020. Despite being a common addition to most beverage formulations, consumers and beverage brands alike sometimes struggle to understand what these additives are, exactly.
A single flavor can consist of 50 to 100 different compounds derived from natural and/or artificial sources. Because flavor is one of the most important contributions to the success of a drink, there’s a few key things you should know about how it is defined and why.
“Natural” is a term that many people tend to associate with health and sustainability; in reality, it simply means “from nature.” When applied to the world of flavor science, it has a slightly more complicated definition.
According to the CFR, a natural flavor (or natural flavoring) refers to “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.”
That sounds like a mouthful (and it is), but all it really means is that a natural flavor is a substance derived from a natural source (through plant or animal matter) and whose function is for flavor, not nutrition. There are three forms a natural flavor can take. Let’s use lemon as an example:
- Natural Lemon Flavor – FTNF is the acronym for “from the named food,” meaning all the flavor ingredients used must be derived from the natural named source (in this case, lemon).
- Natural Lemon Flavor WONF – WONF is shorthand for “with only (or other) natural flavors,” meaning the flavor must contain any amount of a natural derivative from lemon. All other flavor ingredients used must be natural, but do not necessarily have to come from lemon.
- Natural Lemon-Type Flavor or Natural Flavor For Lemon – All flavor ingredients used must be natural, but do not need to come from the named food. This flexibility allows flavorists to create a flavor using natural compounds more readily available in other sources; for example, citral can be extracted from lemongrass to make this Natural Lemon-Type Flavor. Fanciful names can also be used followed by the declaration—”Lemon Slice Surprise” (A Natural Flavor).
As with “natural,” there are common misconceptions associated with the term “artificial.” Some people associate “artificial” with chemicals, which have a negative connotation with health—where flavor science is concerned, that’s not necessarily true.
Ask any flavorist and they will be able to tell you that the same compounds found in one source can also naturally be found in other sources—sometimes, in a much higher amount or more efficiently extracted form.
Like vanilla ice cream? Well, odds are you are enjoying an artificial flavor. There are simply not enough vanilla beans in the world to meet demand for the flavor; luckily, the compound that gives vanilla its signature profile (vanillin) can be synthetically derived from other sources like paper pulp. Chemically speaking, the vanillin extracted through either source is exactly the same, but you’re guaranteed to see a difference in cost and availability.
Where does the CFR stand on the matter? Well, an artificial flavor (or artificial flavoring) refers to “any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof.”
Simply put, artificial flavors are additives designed to mimic the taste of natural ingredients. Made with synthetically derived raw materials, an artificial flavor structurally mirrors the natural compound, offering manufacturers a cost-efficient way to achieve a specific profile.
Take a look at the ingredients label on the back of your favorite drink and you might find “natural and artificial flavors.” You might be wondering where those fit into the definitions we’ve discussed.
There are two common hybridizations of artificial and natural flavors stipulated by the CFR. Let’s return to our lemon example to explain what they mean:
- Natural & Artificial Lemon Flavor – This flavor classification requires that a natural derivative from lemon be used; however, there are currently no requirements for the amount of the named foodstuff (in this case, lemon) needed in the flavor for “Natural” to appear on the label.
- Natural & Artificial Lemon-Type Flavor or Natural & Artificial Flavor For Lemon – This flavor classification requires it contain any amount of a natural component, but not necessarily from lemon.
Many modern drink flavors are achieved through a combination of natural and artificial flavors. Natural flavors are often used to establish the basic profile of a product, while artificial flavors are perfect for modifying and enhancing that profile. Together, they serve to support the product’s overall flavor stability and quality as it sits on a shelf.
Still have some questions? Don’t worry—we don’t expect you to become an expert from just reading a few definitions! Here are answers to the 3 most common questions we get about flavors:
- Can I find specific flavor ingredients on my beverage?
Regardless of whether natural or artificial flavors are used, the FDA does not require flavor companies to disclose the individual ingredients that make up those flavors—that is, so long as all of the ingredients have been deemed Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS).
Recall that there can be 50 to 100 compounds in a single flavor—lists of these flavor ingredients would simply be too lengthy for a package to cover. Instead, the FDA allows a label to simply disclose whether artificial and/or natural flavors have been used in the product. This also serves to protect the proprietary formula of the flavor.
- Are Natural Flavors “better” for us than Artificial Flavors?
Natural and artificial flavors are composed of the same molecules; so structurally, they are the same. The same can be said of their nutritional value—there is no difference between natural and artificial flavors, whose functions are for flavor, not nutrition.
Both natural and artificial flavors are responsible for creating profiles that make food and beverages enticing. Ultimately, a product’s source of nutrition has nothing to do with the flavor additives that are included, so judging a product’s nutritional value on whether it does or does not contain natural and/or artificial flavors is not accurate.
- Do Natural Flavors taste better than Artificial Flavors?
There is a common misconception that artificial flavors will taste “chemically” or “harsh” and not be true to the natural flavor of a food. This is no longer true. Flavor science has come a long way in recent years.
Drawing on the combined benefits of artificial and natural flavors, flavorists can now create any type of flavor profile you can imagine. Without the label telling you so, it is unlikely the average consumer would be able to taste the difference!
Flavor and aroma invoke powerful sensory experiences that can only be appreciated on an individual basis; it’s not something you can see or touch, but something you must feel for yourself. A flavorist’s role is to recreate those experiences at the molecular level, allowing consumers to enjoy their favorite flavors and taste new profiles that would otherwise be a rarity to experience. Beyond all of the complex regulatory definitions and paperwork, that’s the true magic of flavor development—and something we can all raise a glass to!
If you’ve got an idea for a great drink, the beverage development experts at Flavorman can help you bring it to life! Just fill out this web form or give us a call at (502) 273-5214 to get started.