What's The Difference Between Natural And Artificial Ingredients?
If you've ever tasted banana-flavored Laffy Taffy, you know the disappointment of artificial flavors. They're pungent and overly simple, and often taste nothing like what they claim to be. The most popular form of artificial banana flavor is a molecule called isoamyl acetate. Natural banana flavor, on the other hand, is a molecule called — wait for it — isoamyl acetate. Chemically, they're the exact same thing. They taste the same, too. From flavoring to preservatives, the difference between natural and artificial ingredients in your food mostly comes down to marketing.
A Flavor By Any Other Name
When it comes to flavor, the FDA defines "natural" as anything derived directly from a plant or animal, or from the roasting, heating, or fermentation of that plant or animal. Artificial flavoring is anything that's, well, not that. But that's where it ends. As long as you don't synthesize the molecule, you can do just about all the tinkering you want to natural flavors in order to get the desired end result.
For an example, let's go back to isoamyl acetate. Despite its fake taste, isoamyl acetate is found in bananas. It's generally considered to be the molecule that makes bananas so banana-flavored — your Laffy Taffy is just missing the many other flavor compounds that come with it, so it tastes one-dimensional. Amyl acetate is an almost identical molecule that also comes listed as both natural and artificial banana flavor, and in the book "Fast Food Nation," Eric Schlosser explains the very tiny difference between those ingredient labels: "When you distill it from bananas with a solvent, amyl acetate is a natural flavor. When you produce it by mixing vinegar with amyl alcohol, adding sulfuric acid as a catalyst, amyl acetate is an artificial flavor. Either way it smells and tastes the same."
Sometimes, natural flavors can actually be more harmful than artificial ones. That's because distilling a compound from the real thing carries the risk of taking some toxins along for the ride. When almond flavor (benzaldehyde) is distilled from peach and apricot pits, as it is when it's "natural," it contains traces of the poison hydrogen cyanide. But when you make the exact same compound by mixing amyl acetate and oil of clove, it's cyanide-free — yet must be labeled as an artificial flavor.
So Fresh And So Clean
What about other ingredients? In recent years, many companies have announced their plans to remove all artificial colors and flavors in response to growing consumer demand for so-called "clean" labels. But preservatives have proven a bit more difficult. Preservatives are added to food to prolong shelf life and avoid spoilage — basically, to keep bacteria, yeast, and other microorganisms from growing to levels that make you sick. That's no minor issue; the FDA estimates that foodborne illness causes 3,000 deaths every year. The trick is finding natural preservatives that are as effective as the artificial ones. That can take a lot of time and money, but because consumers want food with "clean labels," many companies consider it worth the effort.
For example, in July 2017, Oscar Meyer announced that it would no longer use artificial nitrites in its hot dogs. Nitrites are used in hot dogs, bacon, and other cured meats to prevent botulism and preserve color, but they can form cancer-causing compounds when heated. The company swapped sodium nitrites in its franks for "cultured celery juice." That means that the juice has been treated with a bacterial culture that — wait for it — produces nitrites. But "celery juice" reads much better on a label than "sodium nitrite."
That's not to say that there aren't preservatives that pose a risk — many additives are being examined by health authorities as possible links to cancer and other issues. But swapping them for "natural" alternatives doesn't always solve the problem. In the end, the difference between natural and artificial ingredients is more a product of language and marketing than of health and safety. Celery juice, apricot pits, and banana oil are natural, but so is cyanide and snake venom. Just because it's natural doesn't mean it's better.