Ask Paul: What Is the Difference Between Natural and Artificial Flavors?

It's a natural question to ask!

Published June 9, 2021.

Kevin asked: What’s the difference between natural and artificial flavors?

Let’s start fully zoomed in. We’re looking at a ring-shaped molecule with a couple of carbon-containing spokes attached. It’s C8H8O3, familiarly called vanillin. The primary flavor compound in vanilla beans, vanillin is one of the most valuable molecules in the world. It gives baked goods and ice cream the sweetly ethereal flavor they demand.

Zoom out and we see that, indeed, we’re holding a sandwich cookie redolent with vanillin molecules. Take a bite: heady vanilla cream-filled sweetness, mmmm, wonderful. What was the question?

Oh, flavors. So the vanillin, is it a natural or an artificial flavor? You might think we’d be able to tell by looking at the molecules, but no. Like other flavor compounds, the same vanillin molecule can just as easily be considered natural or artificial flavor by the FDA. The deciding factor is where the molecules came from.

It’s a perfectly fair assumption that “natural” vanilla flavor comes from vanilla beans, and the cookie company loves when we make that assumption, but it’s not true. 

It was almost 150 years ago that science first figured out a way to make vanillin without harming any vanilla beans, by converting a smoky-smelling compound called guaiacol into vanillin. Much of the world’s delicious vanillin is now made from guaiacol derived from coal, and it’s the exact same molecule as the vanillin you get from beans. When it is made in that way, it is called (rather uncontroversially) “artificial flavor.”

However, guaiacol can also be created from chemically distilled wood tar. In this case, the FDA calls it “natural guaiacol” and vanillin made from it (again, an identical molecule) qualifies as “natural flavor.”

Vanillin can also be manufactured from rice bran (natural), paper pulp (artificial), turmeric (natural) … see the pattern? Me neither, really. The underlying FDA guideline is that a flavoring can be called “natural” if it is manufactured from any raw material that’s “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.” The extract of wood is evidently legally adjacent enough to food that the FDA deems it “natural,” unless it’s a by-product of processing that wood for paper. The legal tangles surrounding flavor labeling are dense and thorny, with dozens of court cases in recent years about vanillin alone.

Why are we in such a tangle? Either way, the cookie is flavored with vanillin that’s chemically synthesized from tar. That’s fine! But it sounds unappetizing. So, understandably, since food manufacturers can easily get the wholesome-sounding halo of the word “natural” at a bargain price by using tar derived from wood, they do. That has resulted in a cart-before-horse situation where ingredients are chosen for what they allow manufacturers to put on a label, more than for any difference inside the package. 

We consumers are mostly fondly hoping to eat flavors derived from the actual food they taste like. It’s natural to assume that a naturally flavored vanilla cookie has vanilla beans somewhere in it, but when it comes to food labels, that’s not what “natural” means. 

What is the difference between natural and artificial flavors? The distinction is largely artificial.

Ask Paul Adams, senior science research editor, about culinary ambiguities, terms of art, and useful distinctions:


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