Increased palatability of foods is desirable, but consumers express concern about chemical additives in foods (Brewer and others 1994). Along with the ambiguous and inclusive nature of their name, AF can invoke fear in consumers about the health and safety of the products they appear in. They also invoke a feeling that the product is unnatural, and moral and ethical objections may arise. These are all valid concerns; however, many beliefs about the superiority of natural flavors (NF) are unsubstantiated. The benefits of AF compared to NF include better consistency and quality control, less cost, and potentially less detriment to human and environmental health. While the primary goal of AF is to increase the flavor and palatability of food products, their complete replacement with NF is not warranted.
According to the Code of Federal Regulations, “the term artificial flavor or artificial flavoring means 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” (21CFR101.22). This implies that the general distinction between artificial and NF is simply that AF are derived from non-food sources. This does not mean that they are limited to those compounds that are not found in nature. Rather, the vast majority of AF can actually be found naturally in foods (Rowe 2011).
Claims about the safety of AF are usually based on the belief that they are unnatural chemicals and therefore are somehow innately unhealthful. It may be true that the chemicals contained in AF can be harmful at high levels, but the same chemicals present in NF could be expected to have similar toxicological effects. Additionally, there may be contamination in NF from pesticides, solvent residues, GMO proteins, heavy metals, natural toxins, and allergens, which may be more problematic than the synthetic compounds in AF (Kryger 2011).
Most AF fall under the generally regarded as safe category, implying that there is insufficient evidence to suspect that their use at acceptable levels poses any significant health risks. This does not mean that they are all completely safe; a recent study on rats showed toxic effects from consumption of synthetic colors and flavors (Abd El-Wahab and Moram 2012). What it does mean is that the safety of AF depends on the specific compounds present. A review of the toxicity of natural and synthetic substances concluded that molecular structure and dose are the primary determinants of the effect on human health, not whether they are of natural or synthetic origin (Topliss and others 2002).
An interesting case is salicylates, which presents concern to those who are sensitive to them. Salicylates, which include the artificial flavor methyl salicylate (wintergreen oil) as well as the active metabolite of aspirin, are toxic to humans in high amounts. However, salicylic acid is produced endogenously in humans, and there is even evidence that salicylates may have cancer-preventive action at levels found in a plant-rich diet (Paterson and others 2008; Paterson and Lawrence 2001). This emphasizes the dose-dependent nature of potentially toxic chemicals, which also include natural compounds in foods as well.
Artificial sweeteners are popular due to their potential to lower the caloric content of foods. Excessive sugar intake can lead to weight gain, and replacement with non-caloric sweeteners can be a healthful alternative. A review of common artificial sweeteners reiterated the emphasis about individual variability and dosage when considering their toxicity (Whitehouse and others 2008).
There are ethical and moral issues that go beyond health and safety concerns, including potential environmental impacts, the use of unnatural ingredients in foods, and the lack of disclosure by food companies. Artificial flavors are often derived from nonrenewable sources such as petroleum and are therefore unsustainable in nature. However, the use of NF also poses environmental concerns, as they can be sourced from remote locations, may require toxic solvents to extract, and may require extensive waste disposal, all potentially having negative effects on the environment. The ideals surrounding natural ingredients should consider all the processes that are potentially involved with producing and distributing them. Artificial flavors may not be as natural as NF, but NF are far from all-natural themselves.
An ethical and moral issue that can also be considered political regards product labeling. Natural flavors are often preferred by consumers because they are presumed to be safer and more natural than AF. It was already discussed that the same compound can be classified as either a NF or AF depending on its source, but a potentially harmful product can be labeled a NF if it is harnessed from an appropriate source. Flavor enhancing glutamates, which can be neurotoxic, can hide behind seemingly harmless labels such as hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, and caseinate depending on the source. Natural flavors can pose significant and potentially greater safety risks than AF while deceivingly giving the impression that they are harmless.
Artificial flavors have certain advantages compared to NF including more consistency, better quality control, longer shelf life, and less cost. Natural flavors are innately inconsistent due to batch variability, which can lead to inconsistent and unreliable flavors and functional behavior in foods. Natural flavors can also be contaminated, requiring further steps to ensure safety. Artificial flavors can be formulated to include only the most potent flavor compounds, reducing quantity requirements and minimally affecting both functional properties and potential toxicities of the food. Artificial flavors can also be synthesized and combined to create new and unique flavors unrivaled by the natural world. The shelf life of AF can be longer than natural extracts as well. Perhaps the greatest benefits of AF compared to NF are that they can be cheaper and more consistently available, such as the use of ethyl butyrate as citrus flavoring.
As humans, we continually encounter toxic substances in our environment, many of which are natural in origin. Popular belief about the safety of artificial flavors is often unsupported by science, and dose must always be considered when determining the toxicity potential of substances. More importantly, the toxicity of substances does not depend on whether they were naturally or artificially synthesized. The notion that artificial flavors should be replaced by natural flavors in all cases cannot be supported by arguments based on safety, health, or environmental concerns because neither is necessarily more detrimental than the other. Additionally, artificial flavors can contribute to a very sensual eating experience, which is one of the most satisfying and enjoyable experiences of life.
Abd El-Wahab HMF, Moram GS. 2012. Toxic effects of some synthetic food colorants and/or flavor additives on male rats. Toxicol Ind Health [Epub ahead of print]. Posted Feb 8, 2012
Brewer MS, Sprouls GK, Craig R. 1994. Consumer attitude toward food safety issues. J Food Safety 14:63–76.
Kryger RA. 2011. Regulatory Issues and Flavors Analysis. In: Goodner K, Rouseff R, editors. Practical Analysis of Flavor and Fragrance Materials. 1st ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. p 201-22.
Paterson JR, Baxter G, Dreyer JS, Halket JM, Flynn R, Lawrence JR. 2008. Salicylic Acid sans Aspirin in Animals and Man: Persistence in Fasting and Biosynthesis from Benzoic Acid. J Agr Food Chem 56:11648–52.
Paterson JR, Lawrence JR. 2001. Salicylic acid: a link between aspirin, diet and the prevention of colorectal cancer. Q J Med 94:445–8.
Rowe D. 2011. Overview of Flavor and Fragrance Materials. In: Goodner K, Rouseff R, editors. Practical Analysis of Flavor and Fragrance Materials. 1st ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. p 1-22.
Topliss JG, Clark AM, Ernst E, Hufford CD, Johnston GAR, Rimoldi JM, Weimann BJ. 2002. Natural and synthetic substances related to human health. Pure Appl Chem 74:1957–85.
Whitehouse CR, Boullata J, McCauley LA. 2008. The potential toxicity of artiﬁcial sweeteners. AAOHN J 56:251–9.