Flavorings in Food – What’s in Our Food

Around 2,600 flavorings are used in the food industry to give products the finishing touch in terms of taste and smell. In some foods, aromas are even the only flavor enhancer. According to the German Association of the Flavor Industry, Germans eat 137 kilograms of flavored food per capita and year. However, it is unclear how many aromatic substances we actually consume. Consumers are still dependent on the information provided by the flavoring industry. At the EU level, there is currently a discussion about how in the future it will be easier to understand how many flavors we ingest with our food.

Many aromatic substances are very taste-intensive. What is good for the food industry: strong effects can be achieved with small amounts. Alcohol or lactose, for example, are used for dilution, which is mixed with the flavorings. According to the flavor manufacturers, processed and ready-to-eat foods can contain up to 0.2 percent alcohol.

What types of flavors are there?

Flavorings are obtained from nature, but also chemically. The Aroma Ordinance, which regulates the processing of aromas, has been in force in Germany since 1981. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment distinguishes among others the following groups:

  • Natural flavorings are made from plant, animal, or microbiological raw materials. This is done, for example, by extraction and distillation. These aromas can even be obtained from microorganisms such as mold or from tree bark.
  • Artificial flavorings are chemically produced and do not occur naturally in food.
  • Flavor extracts are obtained in different ways from food or even from substances that are not originally a food. These include essential oils such as citrus or fennel oil.
  • Reaction flavors are obtained by controlled heating of a mixture of different ingredients. They themselves do not initially have to have any aroma properties. For example, roasted aromas are created during baking and roasting.
  • In addition, information such as “raspberry flavor” is often found on products. According to the food association, this is to be understood as a taste indicator: the aroma tastes like raspberries, but it probably doesn’t come from the berries. However, if the list of ingredients says, for example, “natural strawberry aroma”, 95 percent of the aroma must come from strawberries.

Are flavorings harmless?

The flavoring substances are evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) or another international expert body. However, the experts are faced with the problem that the data situation is very incomplete in many cases and there are a great many substances – there are around 2,600 – that need to be evaluated. So far, only a few flavorings have been identified that are harmful to health and are therefore no longer allowed to be used. The use of some flavoring substances is restricted. These may only be used for certain food categories and/or in certain maximum quantities. In many cases, however, EFSA’s assessments are only preliminary and have not yet been completed.

Flavorings in baby food: consumer advocates warn

The extent to which flavors affect eating behavior is discussed. For example, there are indications that infants, in particular, can be influenced in their taste development and that the use of aromas can affect later food preferences. Consumer advocates see the use of flavorings as problematic, particularly in the case of supplementary food that is initially given in addition to breast milk. They advise making your own solids.

Beware of “free from flavor enhancers”

Many foods advertise “Free from flavor enhancers”. The consumer expectation is then often that there are no flavors in the product. But this is often not the case. It is precisely then that aromas are used to replace the flavor enhancer.

A study by the University of Göttingen in 2017 came to the conclusion that flavor names are often incomprehensible to consumers.

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