Nutrition Meets Food Science

The Art & Science of Natural Flavors

The word “flavor” is abundantly used in our daily conversations, bringing up ideas of rich, vivid experiences that extend beyond the simple act of eating. A substance’s flavor includes its taste, smell, and texture. These flavors are intended to enhance how one feels related to a product’s basic characteristics. Moreover, they can also be used to add appeal to dull yet nutritious choices. For instance, flavoring substances can impart a salty zing to low-sodium products example: low sodium soups are often flavored with herbs (like thyme, basil, and oregano), spices (black pepper and paprika), and umami-rich ingredients (like mushrooms, tomatoes, and nutritional yeast) to create a savory taste.

It’s clear that flavors have a huge impact on our taste experiences, but what exactly are flavors and where do they come from?

Flavors come from all around us. Scientists have spent years identifying flavoring ingredients found in both natural and artificial sources, and have discovered which combination of ingredients results in a desirable and distinctive flavor. Natural flavors are unique among flavoring agents because of their authenticity and health advantages. They come from botanical or organic sources and have several health benefits in addition to improving the flavor. Whereas for artificial flavors a flavorist will examine the chemical composition of natural ingredients and then use one or more synthetic ingredients to produce flavor profiles (1).

Natural flavors and natural flavoring ingredients differ primarily in their form and concentration. Natural flavors are concentrated extracts made by processes like extraction and vaporization, whereas natural flavoring ingredients are whole foods or spices used to impart flavor earlier used by our grandmothers and mothers for example saffron, kokum, etc. However, using natural flavors is preferred instead of complete ingredients as it makes inventory management easier and keeps other components from diluting the food product. Natural flavors, much like artificial ones, require only fractions of percentages to be effective, thus preserving the original characteristics of the food. For example, using spice oils or oleoresins instead of whole spices allows manufacturers to avoid adding bulk and other interfering substances, maintaining the desired consistency and quality of the food.

Sources of Natural Flavors:

Compounds found in fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, and other edible parts are sources of natural food flavors. Anyone would prefer freshly squeezed juice of fruit rather than commercially packed juice, isn’t it? Here comes the role of natural food flavours which are extracted straight from nature, preserving the true essence of the original ingredient.

Depending on the source, different steps are involved in extracting natural flavors.

Which flavoring compounds are responsible for flavors?

  • Esters: Gives Fruity & sweet flavors (Apples, pears, bananas, pineapples, and strawberries)
  • Aldehydes: Gives Fruity & Nutty flavor (Fruits like cherries, spices like cinnamon, anise, and nuts like almonds)
  • Terpenes: Herbal flavor (Sage, rosemary, caraway, cumin, clove, and thyme)
  • Thiols: Pungent flavor (Onion, garlic, cabbage, Bell peppers, tea and coffee)
  • Lactones: Creamy &buttery flavor (Dairy products)

In combinations desired, these compounds can provide a wide range of flavors that one experiences in foods and beverages. (2)

Techniques of preparation of natural flavors:

  1. Extraction: It is one of the oldest techniques; it means extracting flavors and essential oils out of fruits, vegetables, and spices. For example, lemon juice traditionally was extracted by simply hand squeezing, whereas now a manual juicer is used. Distillation is another common technique wherein volatile chemicals are captured using steam. Natural flavors found in fruits and vegetables are usually extracted using one of three methods: solvent extraction wherein the desired compounds are extracted from the rest of the material as seen for herbs and spices after being dried and processed into powder; steam distillation commonly used for spice oil it vaporizes the volatile compounds, which are then condensed and collected; or cold pressing which is used for citrus fruits, it involves mechanically pressing the fruit peels to release their essential oils. Lemon oil is mainly extracted by this method which has culinary as well as medicinal importance.
    Another common example is vanilla extraction, which requires hand harvesting of vanilla pods which are then cured, dried, and soaked in alcohol to extract the vanilla flavor, producing vanilla extract.

  1. Fermentation: Another traditional method is fermentation, where natural microorganisms are used to produce flavors. Traditional fermentation results in products with unique flavor, nutritional profiles, and modified texture. Examples are using the fungus Rhizopus to ferment soybeans into tempeh, as well as using various lactic acid bacteria to produce cheese and yogurt.

  1. Maceration and Infusion: One of the earliest extraction methods is room-temperature maceration. This method involves soaking coarse or powdered plant components for a prolonged time in a solvent (water, oil, or alcohol), which is then extracted by straining the solvent through a filter media. Macerated oils, sometimes known as infused oils, can be produced with the use of this method. To make flavored alcoholic beverages like liqueurs, cordials, and Geister, maceration is the primary method. While, infusion typically uses hot water to draw out flavors, as seen in teas, coffee, and broths.

  1. Drying and Smoking: Drying herbs and spices or smoking meats and fish are also traditional techniques to develop and preserve flavors (3).

Now, natural flavors are commonly used in food and beverage manufacture intended to add to, enhance, or change the product’s taste. Producers extract natural flavors using various techniques listed above.

Advantages of Natural Flavors:

For consumers, compared to synthetic flavoring, authentic natural tastes are healthier, deeper flavored, and even fewer in calories. They also tend to taste more natural and are more concentrated. Each flavor has a special quality that promotes wellness. For example, it has been proved that saffron which is used as a whole for flavoring, and its components, safranal, and crocin, are potent ROS. Hence, it is a protective aid for the nervous, blood, cardiovascular, and other systems. Apart from this, the production, when done sustainably, can support environmental health and biodiversity. It encourages the cultivation of various plants and the preservation of traditional farming practices.

In addition, for the manufacturer, the advantages are numerous, including reduced usage rates, refined shipping costs, easier storage, and increased flexibility for the customization of diverse products (4).

Still, Artificial Flavours are preferable. Why?

In some cases, synthetic flavors can be produced more affordably, with higher consistency and purity, than those derived from natural sources. This happens because natural flavors come from natural sources, which means that crop quality may vary, product purity can change depending on location and harvesting, and other uncontrollable factors can affect the availability and quality of ingredients sourced naturally, which affects consistency and cost. Losses occur both during processing and storage. Because certain compounds are so potent, creating artificial flavors with a long-lasting effect is a pretty simple process.

Also, flavor agents developed in a carefully monitored lab environment are under severe quality control throughout the production process. They also don’t need naturally scarce or challenging-to-cultivate minerals or a lengthy, labor- and resource-intensive extraction process (5). Because of this, many artificial flavors that are comparable to those found in nature may be obtained with less harm to the environment and at a higher purity than those that are natural. But it is also true that it is not possible to easily make a very authentic synthetic flavor as making them using a mixture of chemicals is both an art and a science which is not very easy.

Although natural flavors are genuine, complex, and appealing to consumers, they also present several important challenges, such as high costs, unpredictability, and degradation risk. The development of synthetic flavors, which offer uniformity, stability, and affordability, has been made possible by these limitations. In the food industry, satisfying consumer tastes while maintaining practicality and technological feasibility requires striking a balance between the use of natural and synthetic flavors.


  3. Balakrishnan and Gopi; Flavors and Fragrances in Food Processing: Preparation and Characterization Methods ACS Symposium Series; American Chemical Society: Washington, DC, 2022.


Ms. Simran Vichare

Nutritionist, PFNDAI

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