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Natural or Artificial: Your Guide to Flavour Creation
Uncovering the good and the bad in natural and artificial flavour creation
What’s in a taste? When it comes to the intricate art of cooking, quite a bit. There’s a myriad of spices, enhancers and little kitchen helpers out there to do as the famous Emeril Lagasse says, “kick it up a notch.” But now there’s a new guy on the market: artificial flavours.
Some people may shy away when they hear “artificial.” In a society where we’re constantly bombarded by healthy eating and this growing trend to go organic, synthetic flavours may take a backseat to the natural ones. But what is really the difference between the two? Is there one at all or are we just looking for something to gripe about?
If we step inside the flavour laboratory and talk to a couple of “flavourists,” they will answer the age-old question for us. Companies like the Italy-based FlavourArt specialize in the creation of different essences, from fruit to flowers to coffee, and their production covers both sides of the spectrum: natural and artificial. From a scientific point of view, there is very little difference between the two. They are both made in a laboratory, it’s just that one is created by extracting elements from the natural product, while others are created by mixing other elements to produce the optimal taste.
But this still doesn’t answer the question: is one better than the other? At face value, natural flavourings may seem the way to go as they are defined (by the FDA at least) as something derived from a plant or animal. But wait just a second. Not everything that is extracted from a “natural” thing is considered healthy. Do you remember your mother telling you never to eat those poisonous berries or mushrooms as a child? Those come from the precious earth. And if we dig a little deeper, we see that there are many things lurking under the au-natural surface.
Did you know that cyanide can be found in the kernel of wild almonds? And then there is good old Rhubarb, which contains oxalic acid, and has leaves that can be extremely poisonous. So extracting elements from these is not necessarily the better option. In fact, in creating these artificial flavours, we avoid all together using potentially natural toxins. Not to mention it can be easier on the environment as it doesn’t require growing fields and fields of food. Speaking of which, how many chemicals do you think are used to produce natural strawberries, for example? Maybe just as many as it takes to create the synthetic flavour. And from a user experience, I can’t remember the last time I bit into a delicious cake and detected an artificial peach flavour as opposed to a natural one, can you?
Thinking about the physical properties of certain products in general, we also see that in some cases, it is absolutely necessary to proceed in another way. Either that, or the natural product is too expensive and takes toolong to get one’s hands on. For example, the compound vanillin comes from an orchid native to Mexico, a process that would take far too long, which is why we’ve settled for a synthetic version.
So when it comes to flavours, don’t put a label on it. Better to spend your time in the kitchen whipping up that delicious meal!