international flavors & fragrances

Seeking SciNote, Chemistry: Flavorings


What are artificial flavorings? 

Asked by Anonymous 


There are many different terms used in the flavor industry (which is big business nowadays) and it can get confusing. The terms “artificial flavors,” “natural flavors,” “flavor additives,” and “flavor enhancers,” among others have had their official definitions change over the years and different countries may employ different definitions.

Natural flavors are essentially flavoring agents (i.e. chemicals) that can be found in nature. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a natural flavor means “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.”

This definition can be found the Code of Federal Regulations where the definition of artificial flavoring can also be found – “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.” Essentially this means that an artificial flavor is a synthetic, or man-made, chemical (or usually a mix of chemicals).

Regardless of whether they are natural or not, flavorings are chemicals, and usually natural and artificial flavorings are actually the same chemicals – the difference is simply how they are obtained. Flavor chemists, sometimes dubbed “flavorists,” can either extract the chemicals from a naturally occurring item (like a piece of fruit), or they can synthesize the chemicals from other starting materials, but ultimately the chemical or chemicals used in the flavoring are the same (Longo).

The actual chemicals used in the flavoring of different foods is difficult to say; the formulas and/or mixture combinations are often trade secrets. Flavor companies like Givaudan, Cargill, Takasago, and International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) guard these formulations well. Many of them involve compounds like esters, which are chemical compounds that are derived from carboxylic acids. Esters tend to have pleasant odors. and our sense of smell is closely linked to our sense of taste. To get more specific than that would require a chemical analysis. Eric Schlosser in his seminal book “Fast Food Nation” described a typical artificial strawberry flavor (like in a Burger King milk shake) to have the following ingredients: “amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amylketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphenyl-2-butanone (10 percent solution in alcohol), α-ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, γ-undecalactone, vanillin, and solvent.”

Most of the flavor and smell comes from just one or two of these chemicals, but a list like that can be overwhelming. Many people are concerned with all of these substances being in their foods. The FDA recognizes that foods themselves are just mixtures of chemicals, though, and they do at least limit the chemicals allowed in our food and the quantities of these chemicals to levels Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS). This may not sound reassuring, but whether a compound is GRAS and at what levels is usually determined by careful study of the compound structure, its human use history (if it has any), and its processing technique (i.e. how much solvent remains from the production or extraction and whether there are any significant contaminants or side products from production).

Answered by Brian C., Expert Leader

“CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21.” CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Food and Drug
Administration, n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2015.

Natasha, Longo. “Food Labs Use An Average of 2000 Chemicals To Create 500 ‘Natural Flavors’ You
Would Never Suspect Are Artificial.” Food Labs Use An Average of 2000 Chemicals To Create 500
'Natural Flavors’ You Would Never Suspect Are Artificial. N.p., 26 Aug. 2013. Web. 27 Jan. 2015.

Schlosser, Eric. “Why the Fries Take So Good.” Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. 125-26. Print.