Updated 31st May 2023

Food flavorings: What are they, and are they safe?

Humans have been adding flavorings to food for millennia. Initially, herbs and spices were among the few options we had. 

But as technology and the food industry developed, artificial flavorings entered the scene, providing a never-ending selection of tasty chemicals.

These days, aside from whole foods, you’d be hard-pressed to find a product that doesn’t contain flavorings. But does it matter?

In this article, we explain the difference between natural and artificial flavorings. We also investigate whether any health concerns are linked to them.

A brief but tasty history

The science of food flavorings really took off in the late 19th century, as food production became industrialized.

Companies, mainly in Germany and Switzerland, started designing synthetic flavors for the burgeoning food industry. 

At first, these companies worked to recreate existing flavors — they copied flavor compounds in natural products. Later, they tinkered with these molecules to “improve” the flavors and add diversity to their product range.

As food manufacturers increasingly focused on producing more food at a lower cost, ultra-processed foods were born.

Without additives, these mass-produced foods would be bland. Flavorings filled this tasteless void in a cost-effective manner.

Later, as consumers started calling for foods with less salt, sugar, and fat, adding more flavorings helped keep products palatable.

Today, our diets contain a vast array of these compounds. And the list gets longer every year. So, what exactly are flavorings?

Food flavorings in a nutshell

The name says it all, really: Food flavorings flavor food. And they come in many shapes and forms. 

They include essential oils, natural extracts, evaporated resins, like oleoresins, and many other types of chemicals. 

Food flavorings are often combined to get the precise flavor a manufacturer wants. For instance, the flavor of cherry might require a blend of 5–10 chemicals

The modern consumer is more wary of the additives that enter their body. But flavorings attract a little less attention than artificial sweeteners, colorants, or emulsifiers, for example. 

Labeling and scrutiny

Food manufacturers don’t need to specify which flavors they use. They just have to mention whether they’ve added “artificial” or “natural” flavorings on the product's label.

There are many reasons for this apparent lack of scrutiny.

First, many flavorings occur naturally. For instance, they may come from fruit. This makes them seem less problematic. 

Also, there are just so many flavorings in regular use that studying them all in depth would be economically impossible. 

Plus, manufacturers tend to use very, very small amounts. In fact, some flavorings have a global market of just 1–10 kilograms per year.

So, there’s simply not enough cash behind them to warrant expensive trials.

But it’s not a Wild West situation. Official bodies do keep lists of flavorings that are legal in each region. 

In the United Kingdom, the Food Standards Agency runs the show. In the European Union, it’s the European Commission

And in the United States, the Expert Panel of the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association regularly updates a list of flavorings that are "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS).

This panel reviews existing research and decides whether an ingredient is safe. There’s no formal review from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Natural vs. artificial flavorings

The difference between these categories isn’t quite as clear-cut as it may seem.

Natural flavorings are extracts from things in nature, like plants or animals. Artificial flavorings are created in a lab.

But there’s a twist. Some artificial flavoring compounds are exactly the same as natural flavorings. 

Food manufacturers make copies of natural flavorings because it’s often cheaper and easier than extracting them from a natural source. 

Here are a handful of flavorings that manufacturers can extract from nature or create artificially:

The interesting case of vanilla

To obtain natural vanilla extract, manufacturers soak vanilla beans in alcohol. This makes a solution containing the main flavoring, vanillin, and a collection of other compounds.

But this “natural” version is hard to come by. It’s a long process to extract usable vanilla flavoring from nature.

In commercial settings, each vanilla flower has to be pollinated by hand, which is time-consuming.

And it takes 7–9 months for the flowers to develop harvestable fruits. After harvesting, it takes another 5–8 months of curing before you have your final product.  

As one of the most popular flavorings on earth, vanilla's demand far outweighs its natural supply.

Thankfully, manufacturers can use another natural flavoring in its place. It's called castoreum. And where does castoreum come from? The anal glands of beavers. So, now you know.

Before you throw out your ice cream, you’ll be glad to hear that most of the vanilla flavorings you consume don’t come from a beaver’s behind.

Scientists can create artificial vanillin in the lab on an industrial scale at a low cost. Phew.

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It’s common for people to assume that “natural” is better than “artificial.” But when it comes to flavorings, the distinction isn't so meaningful. 

You might be comparing “natural” anal excretions with carefully designed and regulated “artificial” chemicals — which are identical to those in nature.

Do flavorings affect your health?

As we've mentioned, flavorings are incredibly varied, so there’s no straightforward answer to this question. 

Over the years, some of these compounds have been identified as harmful. So, we’ll cover them next.

Before we get going, we should note that flavorings seem pretty safe overall.

And because manufacturers generally use them in very small amounts, any negative health effects would be diluted.

However, it's the same story as with other additives: Even if food flavorings are tested individually, we can’t know the effects of these compounds when consumed in combinations every day for decades. 

So, we don’t know for sure what impact they might have on our bodies.

Food flavorings may not be affecting our health at all. Or maybe they are. There have been no studies on how they might influence gut health, for example.

And there have certainly been cases when things went seriously awry. 

Popcorn lung

Bronchiolitis obliterans, also called popcorn lung, was first identified in workers at a microwave popcorn factory in 2000.

This serious condition was caused by inhaling diacetyl, which produces a buttery flavor. When it's breathed in, diacetyl can lead to scarring in the lungs, making it harder to absorb oxygen. 

However, diacetyl is still on the FDA’s GRAS list because there are no safety concerns about eating it.

Unless you work in a factory with the chemical, you’re incredibly unlikely to encounter an amount that would damage your lungs.

Importantly, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has tightened regulations to protect people who might be exposed to flavorings in factories and similar settings.

Cancer concerns

In October 2018, the FDA banned seven artificial flavorings. This followed a 2015 petition from concerned consumers and health advocates.

Six of these were banned after studies showed that they caused cancer in rodents. The six were: benzophenone, ethyl acrylate, eugenyl methyl ether, myrcene, pulegone, and pyridine.

Manufacturers had added them to candy, baked goods, ice creams, drinks, and other products. 

According to the FDA, the seventh — styrene — was banned because the food industry no longer used it.

The U.S. National Toxicology Program said in 2011 that styrene is “reasonably anticipated” to be a human carcinogen.

A role in obesity?

Some experts wonder whether flavorings might contribute to obesity.

For instance, an opinion article published in BMC Medicine argues that food flavorings might increase the risk of obesity in two ways.

1. A cause of overeating?

First, the authors observe that flavorings might encourage “hedonic eating,” which means eating for pleasure when you don’t feel hungry.

They explain that modern, laboratory-designed ultra-processed foods, which rely heavily on flavorings, override the body’s natural tendency to eat for survival.

2. Flavor-nutrient learning

Their second line of argument involves a “disruption of flavor-nutrient learning.” This learning, they suggest, happens over a lifetime.

When you eat anything, your body learns to associate the flavor with how that food affects your body — whether it's a positive or negative effect. 

For instance, imagine that you ate some delicious prawns, but they gave you food poisoning. From that day on, the flavor of prawns might make you feel queasy. 

But, as the flavor-nutrient learning theory goes, if you eat strawberries, your body learns that they contain lots of beneficial nutrients. Because of this, you eventually come to like them.

The authors of the opinion article argue that added flavorings make it harder for your body to link flavors to nutrients. 

Because your body encounters a wide variety of foods with similar flavors — fresh strawberries, strawberry-flavored yogurt, strawberry-flavored bubblegum — it can no longer figure out which nutrients each product contains.

This, they suggest, could encourage overeating.

We should reiterate that this is just a theory. Scientists have demonstrated flavor-nutrient learning in animal experiments, but it’s proved trickier to pin down in humans

So, it’s not a scientific fact that flavorings contribute to obesity, but it’s an idea worth pursuing.

Use in farms

Lastly, the authors of the opinion article explain that farmers use flavorings in their feed to encourage animals to eat more and gain weight. It’s a fairly common practice throughout the industry. 

You’re not a farm animal, of course, but it provides food for thought.  

Allergies

As we mentioned earlier, food manufacturers don’t need to spell out which flavorings they use in their products. 

They only need to add “natural flavorings” or “artificial flavorings” to a product's label. As a consumer, you don’t know exactly what you’re getting. 

And in some cases, flavorings derived from mustard, celery, cilantro (coriander), and other herbs and spices have caused allergic reactions

A small study published in the 1990s recruited 11 young children with atopic dermatitis, better known as eczema. The researchers found that balsam of Peru (a natural flavoring), natural vanilla, and artificial vanillin made the eczema worse

However, the study had no control group, so it’s possible that the placebo effect was involved.

But when the scientists removed flavorings from the children's diets, more than half of the kids had an improvement in their symptoms.

Still, cases of allergies to flavorings seem rare.

And in the U.S. and U.K., food manufacturers must mention on labels if their products contain ingredients that most commonly trigger allergies, like eggs, seafood, and peanuts.

What should you do?

Realistically, you can’t avoid food flavorings. And most of these compounds seem pretty safe — as far as we know.

There’s little point opting for natural over artificial flavorings. Either way, you don’t know what you’re getting, really. And there’s no evidence that one is safer.

Overall, there’s a lack of research into how these chemicals might interact when consumed over decades.

Ultra-processed foods are a hotbed of food additives, including flavorings.

It would be incredibly challenging (and possibly unnecessary) to cut out these foods from your diet entirely. But reducing how much ultra-processed food you eat and sticking to whole foods is a very good idea.

Sources

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Background image - we are thriving when we have a healthy diet that suits our unique body.Background image - we are thriving when we have a healthy diet that suits our unique body.