Eating healthy is a huge challenge, especially in today’s fast-food culture. And for those of us who intentionally want to make healthier choices, there’s another challenge: how to tell which food items are actually good for us and which ones are just pretending to be.
Take a carton or jug of orange juice, for example. It’s easy to be lured by images of bright glistening oranges on the packaging, but the ingredients often tell a different story. If you see words like “Artificially Flavored” on the label, it probably means that freshly squeezed taste didn’t come from an orchard–more likely a chemical “flavor” laboratory.
So what’s the real score between artificial and natural flavoring? Health-wise, are we better off choosing food made with “all-natural ingredients” over one that “contains artificial flavors”? Let’s take a closer look at how food companies flavor our food, and what that could spell for our health.
Natural vs. Artificial Flavoring: Understanding the Difference
Looking at food labels will usually tell us if what we have on our hands contains “natural” or “artificial” flavoring (or both), thanks to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Code of Regulations requiring food companies to do so. But what does that necessarily mean?
The U.S. FDA provides a lengthy explanation for what constitutes natural flavor or flavoring, which basically boils down to anything used to flavor food and that comes from a plant, meat, seafood, or dairy–or from the roasting, heating, distilling, or fermentation of it. Any flavoring that falls outside of that is considered artificial.
Sounds simple enough, right? However, when you look at things from a molecular level, the distinction isn’t so clear.
Are you the type of person who cringes at the mention of “chemicals” in your food? Well, you shouldn’t: whether artificial or not, all food comes from chemicals–even our bodies are made up of chemicals.
Going back to natural and artificial flavoring, there isn’t much of a difference between the two, chemically speaking. A banana cake, for instance, may be labelled “naturally flavored” or “artificially flavored” using the exact same molecule used to lend a banana flavor to food: isoamyl acetate.
Still confused? Just think of the difference this way: if the chemicals used to make the flavoring comes from nature (as in the case of isoamyl acetate distilled from bananas), it’s natural. On the other hand, if the chemicals used to create the flavoring are synthetically produced (such as when a chemist adds sulfuric acid to isoamyl alcohol and glacial acetic acid to create isoamyl acetate), then it’s artificial.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s look at whether natural flavoring is indeed better than its “fake” counterpart.
Economically, using artificial flavoring is more cost-efficient, since it allows food companies to mass-produce their products at a cheaper cost.
Health-wise, artificial flavoring also has an edge over natural flavors. Synthetic as it is, artificial food flavoring usually has a simpler composition (that is, flavorists only extract the chemical compounds responsible for a certain flavor to make it) and is made up of compounds that have been tested safe by the FDA and USDA.
That said, it’s important not to automatically buy into anything just because it’s labelled “all-natural.” Remember, cyanide (found in celery, peaches, cherries, and plums) and arsenic (a naturally occurring element absorbed by apples, pears, grapes, and most grains) is natural too, but they are toxic when ingested.
So does this mean we’re better off stuffing ourselves with artificially flavored food then? Not necessarily. The bottom line is this: “natural” isn’t always healthier than “artificial,” as far as flavorings in processed and mass-produced food go.
If you want to be mindful about what you’re putting inside your body, you will have to be more hands-on about getting your healthy food fix. That means ditching packaged and processed goods and going for the real stuff. Why go for “naturally flavored” orange juice when you can simply drink freshly squeezed orange juice?
If you’d like to have more flavor in your food, go for truly natural alternatives like spices, herbs, flavorful veggies, and naturally (and freshly sourced) pure fruit juices. A visit to your neighborhood spice shop will yield some very interesting finds.
About the author:
Hi, I’m Austin Winder, a Public Relations Specialist and contributing author for Nutrifusion. I live in Memphis, TN and graduated with a business and marketing degree from the University of Memphis.