Perception of flavours is an evolutionary benefit that helps us have a more varied diet and hence meet various nutritional needs. But flavours helps us appreciate and enjoy our food even more. We love flavours and the food industry capitalizes on this by enriching our foods with a host of natural and/or artificial flavours. But what are natural flavours and which ones are artificial? And probably the biggest question, how do they impact our health?
Natural flavours are generally extracted from natural foods such as fruit, fruit juice, oils, barks of trees, edible yeast, vegetables or their juices etc. Basically, natural flavours are those which are derived from something which is edible in its original form.
The key to calling any flavour a natural flavour is that it should be extracted solely by physical process from any edible food source. Some examples of natural flavours are vanillin extracted from vanilla bean, however, castoreum is also a natural source for vanilla flavour, which is extracted from castor sacs of beaver.
So, natural does not necessarily mean that it is sustainable or is good for you, or even that it comes from a single source. For example, Citral is a chemical found in the lemon peel and is marketed as natural lemon flavour, but it can come from any edible source which contains citral like lemongrass or lemon myrtle.
Artificial flavours are those which are manufactured completely from scratch. These are a copy of natural flavours and imitate the chemicals which are present in natural flavours, for example, vanillin, the organic compound which is the primary component in the vanilla bean, can be extracted from vanilla bean or can be created in a laboratory from scratch.
Artificial flavours provide the exact same sensory experiences as the natural flavours, since they are essentially the same chemical, in the end, only the source differs.
The downside to artificial flavours is that sometimes it is difficult to achieve the exact chemical composition of a natural flavour and hence some artificial flavours taste too “artificial”.
Since flavours do not contain any nutritional value and are simply chemicals which provide a sensory stimulation, there is not much difference between artificial and natural flavourings in the end. The problem can arise due to the fact that our bodies are not naturally inclined to such concentrated amount of flavours (read chemicals) in our food. So it is always better and in favour of your health, to limit the intake of processed foods which contain added flavours.
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