Colors and Flavors: What You Need to Know

January 12, 2012

Reading labels can get confusing, and when you add colors and flavors to the mix, many of us are left bewildered. Here’s what you need to know

We have all seen the products on the shelves boasting “made with natural flavors” in big bold letters - but what does this mean? What unnatural flavors were they using previously? Artificially flavored with what? The Code of Federal Regulations defines “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” (21CFR101.22).

Any other flavor derivation is considered artificial. Both artificial and natural flavors are made in a lab by flavorists who blend either natural (as defined above) or synthetic chemicals to create flavorings. Because of the basic chemistry regarding flavors, the only difference in artificial and natural flavors is the original source of the chemicals; the actual chemical formula is exactly the same. A small change or difference in chemical formula would result in a different flavor. Professor Gary Reineccius at the University of Minnesota says, “Artificial flavorings are simpler in composition and potentially safer because only safety-tested components are utilized.”

Another difference between natural and artificial flavorings is cost. In order to develop and use natural flavors, one must source the desired plant, fruit etc. then go through the laboratory process with a flavorist. The resulting natural chemical is identical to the artificial version made in an organic chemist’s laboratory, yet it is much more expensive than the synthetic alternative. Consumers pay a lot for natural flavorings. Professor Reineccius comments, “…[natural flavors] are in fact no better in quality, nor are they safer, than their cost-effective artificial counterparts.” still believes it is best to avoid flavorings- why not try adding your own homemade spice mixtures!

Unfortunately the story for natural and artificial food coloring is not as straight forward as flavorings. Because colors do not involve specific tastes, as do flavorings, there are great differences between the chemical structures of artificial and natural colorings. Artificial colorings have also been linked with allergies, behavioral and hyperactivity problems in kids, and certain cancers, among other things.

A bit of history: Most of the artificial colorings used today are made from petrochemical coal-tar dyes first developed in 1900. There were no regulations on food colors and any of over 80 dyes could be used to color everything from cloth to candy! In 1906, the first laws were passed for seven colors, composed of known ingredients, which showed no harmful effects. Over the years, new colors were added and some were delisted.

So why are natural and artificial colorings added to foods? The color of your food can substantially add to how you perceive the taste; brighter colors can also make a food look fresher and more appealing, therefore increasing sales. It is unfortunate that as consumers we are conditioned to expect certain foods to be a certain color and will reject those that do not fall into our perceived norms - to most people it just wouldn’t seem right if macaroni and cheese wasn’t bright orange. This expectation and recognition of the color of foods can also be seen as a defense or survival mechanism, it is generally understood that when mushrooms are brightly colored they are probably poisonous to eat.

It is best to avoid artificial color additives and you can do so by reading food labels and only purchasing products with natural added color derived from fruits and vegetables. Ingredients to avoid on food labels include, “artificial color” and “FD&C [color] No. [number].” Another solution is to buy more whole unprocessed foods such as fruits and vegetables and use spices to add flavor; by doing so you will not only limit your exposure to food colorings but other unnecessary cooking and processing additives as well.