Archive for June 2013

It’s Just Bananas! (Kinda Sorta Not Really)

Hi everyone,

For the sole purpose of sharing knowledge with you, I am returning to the internet after my brief hiatus. Yay, learning! First, an update!

I took two weeks off after the semester to do nothing, nothing consisting mostly of lying on the couch, eating vegan ice cream, and playing Settlers of Catan (the Star Trek version produced some disagreement over spaceship models). Or going to the theatre and watching movies (duly note: since we’re on the Trek track, the midnight showing of Star Trek: Into Darkness was not hard to stay awake for).

To Clear Up Any Confusion
Now, I’m back at school doing full-time research with one of my professors on catalytic reactions involving carbon dioxide and making carbon-carbon bonds (imitating an essential reaction that occurs during photosynthesis). There’s a steep, steep learning curve for navigating the lab (more like a vertical line), but it’s challenging and engaging work. I’ll share more on that later in the summer.

My focus for today is (per request by my sister) artificial and natural flavorings! When your juice box proudly declares that the contents are “”naturally and artificially flavored” it begs the question: what exactly are you drinking? Banana flavored Laffy Taffy tastes no more like actual bananas than grape Skittles taste like grapes. These candies contain artificial flavors so that makes sense, right?. On the other hand, Strawberry Capri Sun contains no artificial flavors, but it still doesn’t taste like strawberries. The thing is, “natural flavors” often aren’t any more “real” than artificial flavors.

The FDA defines a natural flavor as:

“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. Natural flavors include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants listed in [other sections of this chapter].”

Which sounds like just about anything to me. My first thought after reading this was, “okay, then what on earth is an artificial flavor?” The FDA defines an artificial flavor as anything “which is not derived from…” any of the stuff listed for natural flavors.

Certain chemicals yield specific flavors based on their structure and composition (in the same way that certain chemical structures cause you to detect certain scents, like I mentioned in this post). If those chemicals can be re-created in the lab using purely chemical synthesis and no pre-made nature-stuffs, it’s artificial. Technically, the molecules that are responsible for the artificial flavor can be (and often are) identical to the ones found in the natural product (1). If you’d like more detail about how the flavor molecules are isolated in a laboratory, check out the introduction of this paper on the flavor of peas.

Soooo….why doesn’t strawberry kiwi flavored water actually taste like strawberries and kiwis? Here’s the catch: there’s not just one chemical in each food that’s responsible for its flavor. Just as it’s difficult to determine which of the 122 compounds in chocolate affect mood, there’s no easy way to pinpoint the critical flavor-creating chemicals. Taste is also dependent on aroma, texture, ripeness, and complex combinations of compounds (2). For example, the typical banana flavoring molecule is called isoamyl acetate. It’s basically banana oil. But bananas are not oil. Bananas are complicated. Therefore, isoamyl acetate doesn’t quite taste like bananas (3). Hence banana Laffy Taffy and other imposter bananas. (This is just fake bananas.) Scientists who figure out how to make things taste good are called “flavorists.”

Isoamyl Acetate, an Ester

I was surprised to find that natural flavors aren’t any “better” or “healthier” than artificial ones. They may actually be worse, according to this article in Scientific American and this one from PBS (both are good reads. Go on. Read them). Sometimes collecting products for natural flavors can kill the plant source (like, if you have to cut down a grove of Massoya trees to get coconut flavoring). or cause other damage to the environment.

 Massoia Lactone, i.e. Natural Coconut Flavor

Natural flavors can contain toxins that the plant produces naturally because plants produce chemicals for protection that aren’t necessarily healthy to eat. Natural flavors are more likely to contain impurities, are more costly, and are of no higher quality than artificially created flavors (4). Here’s an example from the PBS Food Inc. Article:

“When almond flavor (benzaldehyde) is derived from natural sources, such as peach and apricot pits, it contains traces of hydrogen cyanide, a deadly poison. Benzaldehyde derived through a different process—by mixing oil of clove and the banana flavor, amyl acetate — does not contain any cyanide.” (5)

I mean, that’s taking it to the extreme, of course. Almond extract is not equivalent to cyanide. It does make the point, however, that natural and artificial flavors are all chemicals that are synthesized using other chemicals in chemical plants or factories.

In short: cherry ICEEs, root beer, Runts, Hi-C, Scooby-doo shaped fruit snacks….that’s better living through chemistry!


Thanks for reading. Here’s some 60 Minutes: