As we become more informed about the world that we live in, and the food that we put into our bodies, there is strong trend away from artificial preservatives, colors and flavorings, and towards more easily recognizable ingredients or claims of “all natural.” According to the market research company Mintel, an estimated 47% of consumers are seeking out all natural foods. The powerful effects of the internet and the ease with which we come by new information are influencing even our diets. But how much of this readily available “information” is misinformation? Are artificial products really so bad for us? Unfortunately, there is not a simple answer to that question. Partly because, when it comes to our diet, there is no simple definition to the word “natural.”
What is Natural?
That seems like a simple enough question. According to Merriam Webster, the definition of natural is:
"Existing in nature and not made or caused by people: coming from nature
"Not having any extra substances or chemicals added: not containing anything artificial"
So far, natural sounds like an excellent and healthy choice. The legal definition of natural flavors, as described by the Code of Federal Regulations, sounds a little less appetizing, however:
"The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means 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."
If you got the impression that this definition involves a lot of chemistry, then you got the right impression. The flavors that react with our taste buds are always either specific chemical compounds, or a combination of them. As far as the Code of Federal Regulations is concerned, how the chemical compounds are derived determines whether it is natural or artificial.
Companies do not employ masters of the culinary arts to develop flavors for their products. Instead, they hire technicians called “flavorists.” When producing natural flavors, the flavorist first identifies the chemical compounds responsible for the desired taste. These compounds must be safe for consumers, or else the Food and Drug Administration will not permit its use. Next, they derive those compounds from a “natural” source, as defined by the regulations. Sometimes the cost of the source material or the chemical reactions and processes needed to attain the flavor drive up the price of the end result.
However, once a chemical is identified as having a certain flavor, the flavorists have another option. Rather than breaking down a natural source, it is often less expensive to build up to the flavor. This means creating a chemical reaction that yields the flavor, a compound with the appropriate taste. The result is the same exact chemical compound. The only difference is how the two are attained. Imagine for a moment that you want to make a sculpture out of clay, and you already know what you want it to look like. If we apply the legal definition, a “natural” sculpture would be one that starts with a solid block of clay, which then is carved away until only the finished sculpture remains. The artificial version would start with several pieces of clay that are molded together to form the sculpture.
An article in Scientific American has this to say:
"So is there truly a difference between natural and artificial flavorings? Yes. 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. The search for "natural" sources of chemicals often requires that a manufacturer go to great lengths to obtain a given chemical. Natural coconut flavorings, for example, depend on a chemical called massoya lactone. Massoya lactone comes from the bark of the Massoya tree, which grows in Malaysia. Collecting this natural chemical kills the tree because harvesters must remove the bark and extract it to obtain the lactone. Furthermore, the process is costly. This pure natural chemical is identical to the 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. But these are in fact no better in quality, nor are they safer, than their cost-effective artificial counterparts."
The safest bet must be to only eat foods that have no additives, regardless of whether or not federal regulations consider them natural or artificial, right? Well, many people would certainly agree with you, because many people have been misinformed. Unlike the flavorist above, nature does not care about your health. Many common foods actually contain powerful toxins and hormones that would be unhealthy in high levels. Even most chemicals that our bodies need are deadly at certain levels.
The answer to whether or not artificial means unhealthy no longer seems so simple. “All natural” is not a synonym for “healthy.” To eat healthy, it is far more important to vary your diet. You can get many nutrients from eating spinach, edamame and turkey today, but tomorrow you should try other options. Restricting your diet to limited sources is unhealthy in ways that artificial flavors cannot even come close to.