Synthetic Food Flavours- Secret Ingredients in Food

By: Fiza Nawaz *


Globalization and the development of new technologies have caused significant changes in the eating habits of the population, which, in recent decades, has gradually introduced foods rich in chemical additives into everyday life. Among these substances, micro-ingredients called flavourings are essential for the food industry to confer specific sensory properties of taste and smell to processed foods.

The food taste is largely determined by the volatile chemicals present in it. These chemicals are extremely important because they give food a very specific smell; which makes up 80 to 90 percent of the sense of taste. The mixture of these volatile chemicals is called “flavour.”

The smell is considered to be the main determinant of a food item’s flavour. While the taste of food is limited to basic tastes such as: sweet; sour; bitter; salty; umami; and other basic tastes; the smells of a food are potentially limitless. Therefore, the food’s flavour can be easily altered by changing its smell while keeping its taste similar. This concept can be very well exemplified in artificially flavoured jellies, soft drinks and candies, which, while made of bases with a similar taste, have dramatically different flavours. This difference is mainly due to the use of different scents or fragrances in such products.

Flavour plays an important role in the consumption and acceptance of food and in the quality of life in general. The importance of flavour in food with regard to its palatability is well-known, but its value to digestion and metabolism must not be overlooked. The flavour and taste of food stimulate salivary flow and acid digestion.

Food must not only be palatable to be accepted in adequate amounts over a prolonged time, as well as it must also be presented in sufficient variety to achieve a balanced and nutritionally adequate diet. These aspects are largely a function of flavour. Therefore considering all these factors, the flavourings are an essential constituent of human food.

Why are Foods Flavoured?

Most of the daily food intake, even in industrialised countries, is freshly prepared and its flavour is either intrinsic or formed during cooking. However, in line with the increasing demand for convenience, there is a growing range of industrially prepared foods. The addition of scientifically/synthetically developed flavourings is needed to compensate for the loss of flavour during the processing of such foods. Another result of urbanisation and the modern way of life is increasing the demand for snacks, soft drinks, desserts, confectionery and so on. This sort of food would be most uninteresting without the addition of flavourings. Other than this, there are several other factors involved to add flavouring to the food products, which include:

• To increase sales by incorporating mouth-watering tastes;
• To make packaged food taste fresh;
• To give a bolder taste to processed foods as compared to natural foods;
• To make food addictive.

Due to the high cost or unavailability of natural flavour extracts, most commercial flavourants are nature-identical or synthetic. The actual chemicals in these two kinds of flavours may be exactly the same, whereas the chemical structures of the individual molecules may be indistinguishable.

All flavours, including those intrinsically present in food, as well as natural and artificial flavour additives, are small chemical compounds or mixtures of compounds, In fact, the chemical properties and structures of flavouring substances are exactly what enable them to react with each other during cooking and tend to bind with the taste receptors in our mouths creating distinctive flavours.

The Fundamental Differences between Natural and Artificial Flavours

The basic difference between a natural and an artificial flavour is the origin of the flavour chemicals. Natural flavours are typically complex mixtures of chemicals derived from plants or animal sources. In many cases, there will be one predominant flavour chemical, as well as dozens, or even hundreds of other components. It is this complex mixture that gives natural extracts a richer and more complex flavour. In contrast, an artificial flavour is synthesised from other chemicals rather than being extracted from a natural source. Artificial flavours usually contain only a small number, often just one, of the same flavour chemicals found in the natural extract, but lack the others so they cannot precisely duplicate the flavour of the complex mixture. Examples of a few synthetic flavours used in food are mentioned below:

Vanilla Flavour: Vanilla is the most popular flavouring across the world. The compound vanillin is identical to the major component found in the vanilla bean. In other words, vanillin is a synthetic version of one of vanilla’s ingredients. It is used in a wide range of foods and beverages such as: confectionery; baked goods; soft drinks like cream soda; etc. Vanillin is very frequently used as an additive in ice cream and chocolate. The process of extracting vanillin directly from plant is a very complex and expensive process, therefore the vast majority of vanillin used in the food industry is produced synthetically.

Methyl Anthranilate or Grape Flavour: Methyl Anthranilate naturally occurs in concord grapes, jasmine, lemon, orange, strawberry, and ylang-ylang. To develop apple flavouring, this flavouring is combined with ethyl acetate and ethyl butyrate. Apple flavouring is also one of the most commonly used food flavouring. It is mainly used to flavour products such as: soft drinks; confectionery; and it is also used by farmers to deter pests. This flavouring also imparts distinctive purple colour to the products.

Diacetyl or Butter Flavour: Consumers are in love with the rich, smooth flavour of butter. This also adds body and depth to cooking sprays, sauces, baked goods, and popcorn. Diacetyl is most commonly used as the basis for artificial butter flavouring. It is a natural by-product of fermentation and is added to foods and beverages to impart a buttery aroma and flavour. This flavour is obtained from the production of diacetyl and acetoin as by-products of sugar fermentation in the production of cultured dairy products.

Diacetyl and acetoin compounds are by-products of sugar fermentation and can be produced as “Natural Butter Flavour” by culturing dairy products like cultured butter, buttermilk, and sour cream. These compounds can also be prepared as “Artificial Butter Flavour” if they are produced by chemical synthesis.

Banana and Pear Flavour: Isoamyl acetate has a very strong, intense, and distinctive smell. It is used to create both banana and pear flavourings in products such as: confectionery; baked goods; and chewing gums. This compound is produced from Isoamyl alcohol by a fermentation process and is also used to create other synthetic flavourings such as: apricot; cherry; orange; plum; and whiskey.

Pineapple Flavour: Allyl hexanoate is the compound used to impart pineapple flavour. This flavour is most commonly used in confectionery, soft drinks and to add a sweet note to citrus flavours. Also, it is served as the basis of peach and apricot food flavourings. The allyl hexanoate is present naturally in pineapples and it is produced synthetically using chemicals.

Are Synthetic Flavours Safe?

The safety evaluations for all food additives and flavour additives are not as thorough as they should be. Although these synthetic flavours make the food taste and look delicious, the hidden dangers cannot weigh out the possibilities of it by just tasting good. Synthetic flavourings are known to cause many health problems such as: dizziness; chest pain; headaches; nausea; allergies; brain damage; and much more. Some flavour ingredients are also potential synthetic biology ingredients. In synthetic biology, an organism’s DNA is essentially “written” from scratch. These ingredients have little safety research. The best way to avoid these harmful chemicals is to consume less processed and packaged foods which contain these synthetic ingredients, as well as to replace them with certified organic fruits, vegetables, and grains. Cook meals from scratch with fresh organic ingredients and stay away from the toxic chemicals.


* Source: Consultant Dietician

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