Artificial vs. Natural Colors and Flavors

September 14, 2018

It’s becoming increasingly frequent for fast food brands to make claims that they have removed “artificial” preservatives. 

Most fast food brands have chosen the easiest path to claiming better ingredients by simply replacing artificial flavors and colors with natural ones. The difference between the two is subtle, and even nonsensical. For example, the “natural beef flavor” used in some McDonald’s menu items contains no beef at all. It’s made entirely from plant materials even though the flavor it’s mimicking is beef. It derives its “natural” designation from the fact that it’s derived from natural plant material and not because it’s actually derived from a cow. To better understand the difference between artificial and natural flavors, the following information has been excerpted from the Environmental Working Group:

The main difference between a natural and artificial flavor is the origin of the flavor chemicals. Natural flavors must be derived from plant or animal material. Artificial flavors are synthesized in the lab. 

The actual chemicals in these two kinds of flavors may be exactly the same: the chemical structures of the individual molecules may be indistinguishable. However, the FDA requires that a natural flavor be labeled as artificial if it is added to a food not to reinforce a flavor already present but to lend a new taste. For instance, adding naturally-derived blueberry flavor to a plain muffin would require that the blueberry flavor be labeled “artificial flavor.”

The FDA defines a natural flavor 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.”

 These flavor mixtures often include amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, ethyl butyrate, various aliphatic acid ester, ethyl acetate, ethyl valerate, ethyl isovalerate, ethyl pelargonate, vanillin, lemon essential oil, citral, citronellal, rose absolute, geraninol, orange essential oil, geranium essential oil, aldehyde C10, ethyl heptanoate, acetaldehyde, aldehydes C14and C16, styralyl acetate, dimethyl benzyl carbinyl acetate, benzyl formate and many others.

Clearly, the difference between artificial and natural is complicated. Given that the difference is subtle and that the two can be identical chemically, it’s important not to imply that one is superior to the other. In fact, some scientists maintain that because artificial flavors and colors are made in the lab, they are cleaner and safer that the natural alternatives. Therefore, our position should be that we don’t need added colors or flavors of any kind. Avoiding a perseverance for one type over the other allows us to simply ask of our competitors: “Why do you need to add flavors or colors to your food?” And we could simply say to our customers: “We don’t need to add colors and flavors to our food. It’s tastes and looks great naturally.”