Flavors – Harmful Taste From The Lab

Whether cocoa powder, frozen vegetables, fruit tea, or ready-made pizza: more and more foods and beverages need aromas. It is only with aromas that taste-free industrial products become edible or even harmful to health. But when are they artificial and when are they natural flavors? What are flavors actually made of? And how do they manipulate our sense of smell and taste? The world of lab-created flavors seems unfathomable, but we’ll help you see through the tricks of the food maker.

Flavors in the Food Industry – The Beginnings

The term aroma originally meant spice or fragrance. You immediately think of something positive, such as the woody smell of collected mushrooms, freshly squeezed orange juice, ripe strawberries, or your ultimate favorite dish.

All foods naturally have a very special, more or less pronounced, and often unmistakable aroma. So it should z. For example, it is difficult to distinguish cauliflower from broccoli using just the sense of smell, while lemons, cinnamon, peppermint, or vanilla can be identified with ease.

The beginnings of food flavoring take us back to prehistoric times. For a long time, people were content with eating raw and untreated food and enjoying its natural aroma.

Then the realization was born that meals can be prepared and flavored in many different ways. Both smoke and spices and fermentation processes have been used to extend the shelf life of food and alter the taste.

Extracting and distilling plants only gained importance in the Middle Ages. The aromas obtained in this way in the form of essential oils were initially used primarily as remedies. It was not until the 19th century that it was discovered that food could be flavored with essential oils, flavorings isolated from plants (e.g. cinnamaldehyde), or substances synthesized in the laboratory (e.g. vanillin). This was the birth of the flavor industry.

If we now take a look at today’s flavor industry, growth rates emerge that other industries only dream of.

The golden deal with flavors

To date, around 10,000 aromas have been identified in nature. In Europe alone, around 2,800 chemically, physically, genetically, or biotechnologically produced flavors are used in the food industry. In Germany, 15,000 tons of aromas are used every year to influence and adulterate the smell or taste of 15 million tons of food. In other words, every citizen eats an average of 500 grams of industrially flavored food every day.

Although more and more people are thinking about eating healthily and naturally, the aroma market is booming like never before. According to Foodwatch, the business with so-called natural flavors grew by a whopping 132 percent between 2009 and 2013. In 2011, more than $10 billion was sold on flavors around the world. For 2016, the US market research company Freedonia is already predicting sales of 26.5 billion dollars.

There are now more than 500 companies involved in the aroma kitchen, with 4 corporations calling the shots. This also includes the German flavor giant Symrise, which is present in 35 countries and dominates 10 percent of the world market with annual sales of around 1.3 billion euros.

Of course, not only the flavor manufacturers benefit from the flavors, but also the food companies.

Flavors in the food industry

There’s more than one reason why food manufacturers reach for flavors:

Flavors are cheap

On the one hand, flavors naturally save enormous amounts of money. If the pudding powder were real vanilla instead of vanillin, much more money would have to be invested in production. The same applies to currants, raspberries, blueberries, etc., which belong in fruit yogurt. Anyone who has ever picked berries themselves knows how time-consuming it is.

Flavoring 100 kilograms of yogurt with a flavor created in the laboratory costs around 6 cents. If the yogurt now contained real raspberries, at least 30 euros would have to be invested.

Other products do not have to contain nuts or meat, because the flavors they contain ensure that the food tastes as if it were.

Flavors meet the need

Many natural raw materials used to flavor food are not only expensive but also scarce. As far as vanillin is concerned, global consumption per year is around 15,000 tons. However, only about 40 tons of vanillin can be obtained from the available natural vanilla fruit. As a result, not even the entire vanilla production would be enough to satisfy the Germans’ craving for vanilla.

The same is true for strawberry production: it would take 10,000 kilograms of strawberries to produce a single kilogram of concentrated strawberry aroma. Conversely, about 1 gram of aroma is sufficient to flavor one kilogram of food.

Aromas enhance the taste

Flavors are also used to compensate for the loss of taste. If food is industrially processed, heated, or deep-frozen, this inevitably has a very negative effect on the inherent aroma. Furthermore, processed foods are usually stored for a while and transported over long distances before they are finally consumed. During this period, however, taste losses take place. Flavors here offer a convenient and cheap solution. With their help, even tasteless porridge can become a bestseller. Reaching into the chemical construction kit makes it possible for even inferior starting products to taste delicious – even after a long period of storage and transport.

Flavors make products always taste the same

Last but not least, flavors help companies retain customers. Because aromas always ensure a consistent taste, while self-created dishes always show differences. This can depend on the quality, but also e.g. B. be dependent on the number of spices contained.

Brands, on the other hand, live from the fact that the customer knows exactly how the product tastes when they buy it. The secret aroma recipe also guarantees that the product cannot be copied at home and will not be copied by the competition.

But which foods are actually affected by aroma manipulation?

Where are the flavors in it?

While flavors in unprocessed foods such as B. fruit, vegetables, fish, or honey are prohibited, they may be used in all processed foods. Yes, there are now hardly any industrially manufactured and packaged foods or beverages that are free of flavors. Commonly flavored foods include B.

  • Frozen products of all kinds, e.g. B. pizza and lasagne, but also vegetable dishes
    ready meals and preserves
  • dairy products, e.g. B. Yoghurt, cheese, dressings, and any products that may contain dairy.
  • Sometimes you just think it contains a dairy product, when it’s just a flavor, like e.g. B. Butter
  • Flavor
  • confectionery, e.g. B. pudding, chocolate, jam, fruit gums, and ice cream
  • baked goods, e.g. B. packaged cakes, biscuits, and bread
  • Muesli
  • drinks, e.g. B. soft drinks, fruit juices
  • stimulants, e.g. B. wine, coffee, cocoa, and tea
  • packet soups
  • pickles
  • Etc. …

Flavors in animal feed

Of course, animals are not spared aromas either. In the US, where flavored pet food is standard, two-thirds of all dogs are overweight. The food tastes too good with the flavor “roast beef” or “roast chicken” – even though the corresponding meat content is on average 4 percent at most.

Cows are fed flavored feeds that taste like “herb meadows” when in reality they are made of GM soy, GM corn, and synthetic vitamins.

If you look at the brochures for the respective animal feed aromas, you will find explanations such as: “Especially suitable for masking problem feeds” – i.e. feed that the animals would not touch without aromas. Scandals like BSE illustrate what can happen when animals are not fed appropriately.

Of course, people are better off because they can at least see from the food labels whether a product contains aromas or not. However, there can be no question of clarity here. There are all sorts of pitfalls that are intended to deliberately mislead the consumer.

What flavors are there?

Food labels used to tell you whether you were dealing with natural, nature-identical, or artificial flavors, but since 2008 the matter has been further complicated – for the consumer – i.e. made less clear. Flavors are now divided into six categories in the EU according to the Flavors Ordinance, of which we would like to present five in more detail:

The distinction of flavors

There is only a general distinction between flavors and natural flavors, which inevitably leads to misunderstandings every day.

  • Flavors or flavors: If a label simply says “flavors” or “flavor”, it can be assumed that the flavors are either nature-identical or even artificial, all of which are chemically produced in the laboratory. A flavoring substance is considered to be nature-identical if the flavoring occurs in nature but was produced chemically with food, e.g. B. synthetically produced vanillin. Unlike in the USA or Asia, artificial flavors do not play such a big role in Germany: only 15 artificial flavors may be used in food. These include e.g. B. ethyl vanillin, anisylacetone, and vanillin acetate. Artificial flavors are characterized by the fact that there is absolutely no role model for them in nature. You will find e.g. B. in teas, coffee, soft drinks, puddings, bread, sauces, cheese, and chocolate fillings.
  • Natural flavors: Anyone who thinks that natural flavors are always positive is unfortunately mistaken since the flavors used do not have to have anything to do with the food in question (e.g. strawberries in strawberry yoghurt). Strawberry flavor, for example, can be wonderfully produced from the well-known sawdust (the wood substance lignin) – and sawdust is known to be something very natural. The designation therefore only indicates that the flavorings were obtained from any natural (vegetable, animal, or microbiological (e.g. yeast)) starting materials and were produced using natural processes (e.g. distillation or extraction). The strictest rules apply when the name also includes the starting product, e.g. B. natural apricot flavor. In this case, at least 95 percent of the aroma must come from said fruit, the missing 5 percent can be other (natural) aromas.

Aroma extracts

This is a complex mixture of flavorings. Flavor extracts can thus, like natural flavors, e.g. B. from herbs, fruits, vegetables, spices, fish, or meat (e.g. vanilla extract or yeast extract). Essential oils such as B. Anise oil or orange oil fall into this category.

Flavor extracts can therefore be regarded as natural because the mixture of flavor components corresponds to the underlying food. However, there are also aroma extracts from non-food products that require approval.

As the name suggests, aroma extracts are produced by extraction using solvents such as water or alcohol. In order to produce a vanilla extract from vanilla beans, e.g. B. used alcohol.

Smoke flavors

Smoke flavors have nothing to do with traditional smoking – the term smoke appears in the list of ingredients – but are created in the laboratory from condensed and purified smoke.

Smoke flavorings come in both solid and liquid forms. They are defined as liquid smoke and consist of more than 400 chemical compounds such as B. aldehydes, carboxylic acids, or phenols.

The so-called 3,4-benzopyrene is one of the undesired substances in smoke aromas. This is a carcinogenic substance that is the primary contributor to lung cancer in smokers. The content of such harmful substances in food is limited by law but is by no means prohibited.

With smoke flavors z. B. flavored barbecue sauces, soups, stews, salad dressings, and of course sausage, fish (smoked salmon), and cheese.

Thermally obtained reaction flavors

Reaction flavors are obtained through the controlled heating of nitrogenous and sugary ingredients (e.g. pork extract and dextrose). You don’t have to smell or taste anything yourself, because the aroma only develops when it is heated. Reaction flavors can affect the taste and smell of many different foods and are primarily found in ready meals. They simulate the smell of e.g. B. fried fish or fried onions.

Other Flavors

All the remaining flavors that have not found a place under the four already mentioned fall into this category. These include e.g. B. Barbecue Flavors. A wide variety of processes can be used to produce flavors from this group. So e.g. B. atomized drops of saturated vegetable oil heated to a temperature of at least 480 ° C within one second.

As you can see, it’s not easy to see through the aroma jungle. The following examples can provide you with specific assistance.

Flavor labeling examples

If you take a close look at the labels of food, you will find a wide variety of designations in relation to flavors. Using the example of raspberry yogurt, we show how these are to be interpreted:

  • Flavor or raspberry flavor: Here you are usually dealing with artificial flavors.
  • Natural Flavor: It doesn’t have to contain a single raspberry. Although the aroma has a natural origin, it can be e.g. These could be microorganisms or molds, for example, all of which are ultimately very natural.
  • Natural aroma (type) raspberry: Here, too, the search for the fruit leads nowhere.
  • Natural raspberry aroma: Here the aroma component consists of 95 percent real raspberries – the remaining 5 percent remains a secret of the manufacturer.
  • Natural raspberry flavor with other (natural) flavors: Sounds good, but it doesn’t have to be!
  • Less than 95 percent flavor-free raspberry waste and highly concentrated synthetic or natural flavoring may have been added to the yogurt.
  • When the word “natural” is written on food, many consumers are often quick to express their concerns, but as already mentioned, all kinds of substances can be hidden behind them.

What are natural flavors made from?

Natural flavors usually have absolutely nothing to do with what we imagine them to be. Earlier we introduced the strawberry flavor made from sawdust. Even a natural flavor with chicken flavor does not have to be obtained from fresh chicken muscle meat, but can very well have its origin in slaughterhouse waste. Since these are undoubtedly natural, the aroma can be described as natural.

The situation is similar to the natural aroma with raspberry flavor. This is based on z. B. on a cedarwood oil extract. On the other hand, the natural aroma with apple flavor is created by a mixture of marigold oil, wine fusel oil, and yeast oil extract and mixed with biotechnologically obtained ethyl acetate. In addition, natural flavors can be produced from mold cultures, which then taste like peach or coconut.

Flavor reminiscent of vanilla very rarely has anything to do with vanilla beans and can e.g. B. from residues of rice processing – the rice bran – are produced. The ferulic acid present in the rice bran is quickly converted into vanillin in the laboratory with the help of microorganisms.

These are just a few examples that should make it clear that the consumer is simply being duped when it comes to the term “natural flavors”. What really lies behind the aromas usually remains hidden. If food manufacturers are asked about this, they simply refer to the trade secret. Even toxicologists, who are supposed to analyze aromas to see if they are harmless, are helpless since they don’t know what kind of aroma substance was actually used.

According to the Federation for Food Law and Food Science (BLL), which was described in Der Spiegel as the “lobby association of flavor manufacturers”, “harmful health effects from the consumption of flavored foods are not known”. This vague explanation suggests that flavors may not be so harmless after all.

Flavors can be toxic

Although almost all flavors are considered safe, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has carried out a risk assessment. In this context, it was checked whether flavors are carcinogenic, toxic, or mutagenic – seven of them have already been withdrawn from the market due to health concerns and are therefore no longer allowed to be used.

This includes the flavoring agent perilla aldehyde, which has been used to add intense citrus notes to baked goods, puddings, meat products, and beverages. Studies have shown that this aroma is genotoxic and causes DNA damage in the liver.

For other flavors such. B. coumarin legal volume restrictions have been introduced because they can be toxic. In the case of numerous substances – including natural ones – it still has to be clarified whether and in what concentrations they can have a negative effect on health.

Since aromas cannot be processed undiluted due to their high concentration, additional substances that serve to dilute end up in the food, which is also not exactly harmless.

Flavors: carrier substances and genetic engineering

The so-called carriers, including z. B. cornstarch, lactose, alcohol, sodium acetate, or calcium sulfate are mixed with flavors. They ensure that the aromas can be dosed correctly and are evenly distributed in the food. It seems particularly questionable that flavor enhancers, preservatives, and chemicals that serve as carriers do not even have to be declared. Chemical solvents and extraction agents that are used in the production of flavors are often also detectable in the end product.

In addition, many of the yeasts, fungi, or bacteria used in the production of flavors or their auxiliaries and additives are genetically modified. Of the 39 approved carriers, 20 can also be produced using genetically modified organisms.

The fact that genetic engineering for flavors is not usually subject to labeling is more than thought-provoking. So in flavored foods z. B. Starch from genetically modified corn may be included as a carrier without this being recognizable.

But aromas can also harm people if they are completely harmless per se since they can permanently affect and even disturb the sense of smell and taste.

This is how aromas are perceived

It is usually assumed that the moment of pleasure when eating is primarily related to the sense of taste. According to experts, however, it is the sense of smell that determines the taste, since around 90 percent of the sensory impressions do not arise on the tongue but are triggered by smell signals.

Just start a self-experiment: hold your nose and sprinkle a little cinnamon on your tongue. After about 15 seconds you let go of your nose and you will find that you only notice the cinnamon flavor when your nose is clear again.

Anyone who has ever had a cold and a stuffy nose knows that food tastes like nothing in this condition. If our nose is constantly confronted with products from the aroma kitchen, this can also have an effect on the feeling of hunger. In addition, the inferior quality of the food can no longer be recognized due to the adulteration of the smell.

Flavors are harmful to health

There’s a reason bad smells are a deterrent. In this way, our sense of smell prevents us from eating food that is inferior or even spoiled. If food is now given aromas from the laboratory, we can no longer smell whether we are dealing with poor quality or rotten goods. There is no question that this can have health effects.

Flavors can also convey the feeling that you are eating healthily. For example, you might think that you are eating fruit and enjoying vitamins, but these are just chemicals with no nutritional value.

Conversely, scents that are perceived as pleasant stimulate the production of gastric juice and saliva. This automatically creates a feeling of hunger. This also explains the phenomenon of sudden cravings when walking past a fast food store. It’s that typical artificial smell that can be smelled from miles away and forces many people to buy a burger after all.

In this sense, it can rightly be said that aromas can trigger addictive behavior and, as a result, lead to obesity. Those who benefit from this are the food companies and fast food chains.

But there is also the habituation effect. After all, anyone who keeps eating artificially flavored products that smell much more intensely than natural foods will eventually not like anything else. This effect is particularly dangerous for children, who are often completely addicted to artificial foods and reject natural foods.

Flavors in baby food

The National Breastfeeding Commission recommends that infants should be breastfed until at least four months. Then you can feed them extra, but you should avoid salt, sugar, and flavorings for the first few months. It is very important that babies can develop a taste for genuine foods – as a basis for a healthy diet, so to speak. Manufacturers of baby food don’t seem to care.

The Wiesbaden consumer center and the Frankfurt consumer center carried out a market check in the Rhine-Main area and checked the lists of ingredients for 25 complementary food products. The result was astonishing: Two-thirds of these manufacturers use flavors in baby food and only four organic manufacturers do without them.

Professor Hanns Hatt from the University of Bochum points out that flavors mislead children’s sense of taste. And the earlier this imprint begins, the more lasting it will be.

A study by the Technologie Transfer Zentrum Bremerhaven (TTZ) has shown that children who are given flavored foods from an early age also prefer them later. The research showed that those children who were used to vanillin, artificial banana flavor, or synthetic strawberry flavoring preferred flavored foods and, for example, strictly rejected natural yoghurt with real strawberries.

Of course, this imprint leads to the affected children growing into affluent customers who keep their distance from healthy food and prefer ready meals and fast food to satisfy their hunger. It is easy to imagine that these people – should they ever want to change their diet – will have extreme problems with it. They just don’t like it.

The researchers also found that the small study participants who were given flavored foods also ate more of them than those children whose foods were not flavored. This in turn confirms that aromas can lead to obesity as early as childhood.

No finished products – no flavors

If you don’t want to eat any flavors, it’s best to avoid most packaged or processed products, grab fresh food and prepare it yourself. Because sonorous product names and images of fresh fruit, fresh fish, or vegetables, unfortunately, do not suggest high-quality ingredients and genuine taste.

It would be best – if you want to use ready-made products – to always opt for organic food because here at least the use of nature-identical and artificial flavors is prohibited and the additives may not be produced with the help of genetic engineering.

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Written by Bella Adams

I'm a professionally-trained, executive chef with over ten years in Restaurant Culinary and hospitality management. Experienced in specialized diets, including Vegetarian, Vegan, Raw foods, whole food, plant-based, allergy-friendly, farm-to-table, and more. Outside of the kitchen, I write about lifestyle factors that impact well-being.

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