They might not taste better than their artificial counterparts, and may not be any better for you, but natural flavours are winning favour with food manufacturers. Shane Starling reports.
One aspect of the food production process that offers potential for labelling and marketing benefits is the use of natural flavours. This situation has emerged primarily as a result of consumer demand for healthy products, coupled with regulations in most developed nations that require flavour systems to be highlighted on product labels.
But just what are 'natural flavours'? Broadly speaking, they can be broken down into three categories:
- From The Named Food (FTNF)—These flavours are, as their name suggests, derived solely from the food in question. No other materials can form part of the flavour, whether from natural or synthetic sources.
- With Other Natural Flavourings (WONF)—These are FTNF flavours that have been blended with other natural flavours. At least 51 per cent must be FTNF.
- Natural flavours—These flavours, whilst being natural, may contain flavour ingredients from any source.
The manner in which these categories translate into label claims differs from country to country. In the US, a flavour's ingredients must be listed on the Flavour Extract Manufacturer's Association (FEMA) generally recognised as safe (GRAS) positive list, or be defined as a food, for it to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In this case, products may carry a 'naturally flavoured' label. (In the US, one of the above categories must also be stipulated. Non-natural carriers and solvents that are on the positive list will not alter the flavour's status, although natural carriers and solvents must be used if a product seeks the exclusive 'all natural' label language.)
All other flavours containing ingredients that don't make the FEMA/GRAS positive list must be labelled "artificially flavoured."
The European scenario is a little different. Whilst FTNF and WONF categories are recognised, they have no legal standing. Flavoured foods can carry a 'naturally flavoured' label as long as they comply with the rather complex criteria that proves they are indeed natural. To name a flavour by its food source, its ingredients must be at least predominantly derived from that source. When it comes to ingredients lists, only the word "flavouring" is required, regardless of whether the ingredient is naturally or synthetically manufactured.
On the synthetic side of the coin are a host of flavours that mimic naturally occurring chemical compounds known as "nature identical flavours" but which are produced in petri dishes just like the 1,000-odd artificial flavours made of compounds that do not occur in nature at all. The problem is an obvious one— "artificially flavoured" products are falling from favour in an increasingly health-conscious market as consumers reach for the perceived goodness of natural flavors.
In response to this shift, flavourists like UK-based RC Treatt & Co. continue to develop new lines of natural flavours that broaden the horizons of a swathe of food and beverage manufacturers.
"Food manufacturers' requirements are customer-driven, and there is no doubt the trend is toward high-quality natural flavouring," says Treatt's Natural Research and Development Manager John Boddington, Ph.D.
He says this is happening despite the increased costs commonly associated with natural flavours. "The addition of a natural flavouring system allows the manufacturer to reposition itself into a premium market segment, resulting in higher margins than would otherwise be possible," he notes. "Then there are some markets such as baby foods where natural is the only flavouring that is acceptable."
Boddington says food manufacturers must respond to public demand: "Many consumers are suspicious as to why it is necessary to add artificial flavours into particular foods. In many cases, this suspicion has developed into a perception that artificial equates to 'bad' and natural to 'good.' Rather than fight this trend, food manufacturers can simply emphasise the natural flavours they use in a particular food. This becomes easier as the availability of FTNF flavours increases."
Leatherhead Food Research Association (UK) Director of Information John Young emphasises this point: "If you say a product uses natural flavours, people may associate it with tasting better, even if there is no actual difference in taste. Anything that leads to a healthier label is perceived as a bonus."
Albert Woszczak, technical service senior vice president at Illinois-based Bell Flavors and Fragrances, notes, "The well-being label is important to us, so this trend toward natural flavours is one we are trying to maintain in the flavour market."
The focus on FTNF natural flavours has precipitated improved extraction processes. At Treatt, chemical-free techniques such as distillation and fractionation have become the norm and without significant cost increases. Such improvements mean Treatt can claim artificial flavour-like consistency in their distillates—a crucial issue for many foodstuff manufacturers—not to mention the labelling benefits.
That said, inconsistency in taste, a traditional criticism of natural flavours, doesn't have to be a problem, according to John Whitehead, a natural-extract expert and chief executive officer of UK-based Botanical Extract Consultancy. "You can put a marketing spin on it to convince consumers they've got a better product," he suggests. "After all, Mum's apple pie was never the same twice running, but it was always better than anything you could get in the supermarket."
Brooklyn, New York-based flavour manufacturer Virginia Dare also has developed a range of boutique natural flavours that are extracted using natural solvents.
The company's Vice President of Business Development, Maureen Draganchuk, notes, "If you go one step further and make it non-genetically modified, the flavour would meet the criteria for organic compliance."
While acknowledging the trend toward natural flavours, Draganchuk says there will always be a place for artificial flavours. "Products like confectionaries, soft drinks and savoury snacks are never going to be interested in natural flavours, because their primary concern is cost, and the cost of natural flavours is still pretty high compared with artificial flavours."
For Whitehead, the use of natural flavours can offset product "labelling issues." "Even if there are loads of preservatives, stabilisers, emulsifiers and the like, if you are able to put 'natural flavour' on the label, then it can counteract the potentially negative effect of these other ingredients."