The tongue is covered in taste receptors that identify the five basic tastes: salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami. Taste and the other senses play an important role in our enjoyment and digestion of food. The smell, sight and taste of food – especially delicious food – stimulate the production of digestive ‘juices’ (such as saliva in the mouth and HCl in the stomach) and prepare the body to receive food.
When food is processed, it loses its natural flavor, and when it sits on a store shelf for weeks, natural chemicals in food begin to deteriorate, reducing their shelf life and affecting the way they taste. That’s where the flavor industry comes in.
All foods (and everything else around us) are made up of chemicals, whether they occur in nature or are made in a lab. That means everything we smell or taste is a response to chemicals.
The characteristic smell of cloves, for example, comes from one chemical called eugenol. And cinnamon, which is just the dried inner-bark of specific trees, gets its aroma and flavor from the compound cinnamaldehyde.
So, both artificial and natural flavors contain chemicals. The distinction between natural and artificial flavorings is the source of chemicals. Natural flavors are created from anything that can be eaten (i.e animals and vegetables), even if those edible things are processed in the lab to create flavorings.
Here is the official FDA definition of natural flavoring:
"Natural flavor is 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."
Artificial flavors come from anything that is inedible (i.e petroleum) that is processed to create chemicals of flavorings.
Flavor companies employ a range of experts from chemists to chefs to ‘cook up’ novel flavors from an assortment of 1,300 FDA-approved ingredients. They don’t want to disclose their recipes, and consumers don’t like knowing that the delicious chicken flavor in their Stouffer’s dinner comes from a mix of chemicals rather than the real thing.
Unfortunately, the FDA does not require flavor companies to disclose ingredients as long as all the ingredients have been deemed GRAS (generally recognized as safe). This protects the proprietary formulas, but allows for many chemicals to be hidden under the word ‘flavor’ on the ingredients list.
For consumers, this is unfortunate, since even food manufacturers are not aware of the specific ingredients that comprise the flavors used in their products.
The compound vanillin, for example, is responsible for the flavor and smell of vanilla. In nature, vanillin comes from an orchid native to Mexico. The process of extracting this pure, natural chemical is extremely lengthy and expensive. So scientists found a way to make a synthetic version of vanillin in a lab. In 2006, Japanese researcher Mayu Yamamoto figured out how to extract vanillin from cow poop. She was awarded the Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize.
Those who regularly eat – or are addicted to – processed foods lose their taste for real food. We lay blame on sugar and fat for the worldwide obesity epidemic, but ultimately, isn’t the flavor industry largely responsible for making processed food taste good?