Some consumers prefer foods containing natural ingredients.  Other consumers base their food choices primarily on what their food tastes like regardless of the types of ingredients they contain.  And many consumers make their food choices based on which foods give the best value for their cost.

What do flavorings have to do with this?  Flavorings added to foods provide consumers with choices.  Today, many foods are available in a wide variety of flavors because consumers have made it clear that they want to be able to choose what is most appealing to them.  For example, many packaged foods and beverages, such as the increasing number of nutritional and dietary supplement foods and beverages, now come in an unprecedented variety of flavors to provide options to meet everyone’s preferences.

What are flavorings?

Flavorings are the food ingredients that give packaged foods and beverages their wide variety of appealing flavors.  The most important thing to know about flavorings is that decades of research and more than one hundred years of experience demonstrate that the flavorings we consume in our foods are safe.

Flavorings added to foods and beverages may consist of more than 100 individual ingredients that are mixed together to provide a flavor sensation. For example, the naturally-occurring individual flavoring, vanillin, is the single flavor ingredient primarily responsible for giving vanilla extract its characteristic flavor, even though vanilla extract itself contains more than 100 individual flavoring components that contribute to the flavor we recognize as vanilla.  Other minor non-flavor ingredients are used in flavoring mixtures to help the flavorings work in the food or beverage to which they’re added.  As another example, when flavorists create a strawberry flavoring they will often use ethyl methyl phenyl glycidate, the individual flavoring naturally present in strawberries that gives strawberries their characteristic flavor.

So what does the information on the label of a strawberry-flavored food mean?  Why do some products have a label saying that they contain natural flavorings and others that they contain artificial flavorings?

What are natural and artificial flavorings?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines a natural flavoring as a flavoring that is derived from a natural source such as strawberries, and is produced using processes such as heating, extraction, and fermentation that are commonly used to produce foods.  Flavorings that are not produced in this manner are considered artificial by FDA.

The individual ingredients used to create natural and artificial flavorings are not different from each other – they are simply produced from different types of sources that are natural or artificial.  FDA rules on food labeling are based on two simple concepts – first that consumers want to know that flavor has been added to a food, and second whether that flavor is from a natural or artificial source.

When a consumer purchases a food the large, front package label for the food must clearly state if flavorings have been added to the food, and if so then the front label and the ingredient statement for the food must state whether the added flavoring is natural or artificial.  FDA does not require that the individual ingredients of the added flavoring mixture be declared in the ingredient statement because FDA is confident that the flavoring ingredients are safe, and the key information that consumers are interested in has been provided by the declaration that natural or artificial flavorings have been added.

So what’s the difference between natural and artificial flavorings?

The first thing that flavorists do when creating a flavoring for a specific food is to decide what kind of flavoring will work best in that food – will it be a natural or an artificial flavoring.  Natural and artificial flavorings can have different properties in foods and beverages.  While most artificial flavorings will work well in a wide variety of foods and beverages, some natural flavorings won’t.  For example, a natural flavoring may not dissolve properly to allow a beverage to taste the way a consumer would expect it to.  If a flavorist is creating a flavoring for an organic food or beverage the flavoring is required by government regulation to be a natural flavoring.  Natural flavorings cost more to produce than artificial flavorings because the natural sources, like vanilla beans and citrus fruits, can be quite expensive compared to synthetic source materials such as alcohol.  But the key point is that all flavorings, whether they’re natural or artificial, are safe.