Food Flavourings

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Latest Edit: Iva Lloyd, ND 2021-08-24 (EDT)

See Also Clinical Nutrition

Food flavourings are ingredients added to food to intensify or improve its flavor. They are usually represented by a mixture of spices, herbs, taste components, and colors. Some of the most commonly used seasonings include herbs (e.g. oregano) spices (e.g. cinnamon), condiments (e.g. mustard), and a variety of vinegars.


To-date, some 10,000 flavouring substances have been identified in nature however, the food flavouring industry only uses about 2,500 of these substances. The most often used substances include citral which tastes of lemon or menthol which gives a peppermint taste. [1]

Flavourings may contain flavouring substances, flavouring preparations, process flavourings, smoke flavourings and other flavourings.

Depending on the manufacturing process flavourings are divided into two major groups:

  • Natural flavouring substances
  • Synthetically produced flavouring substances which includes Nature-identical flavouring substances and Artificial flavouring substances.

There are three major classification of food favourings which are based on their origin: [1]

  • Natural flavoring substances: These are substances that are obtained from plant or animal raw materials, by physical, microbiological or enzymatic processes.
  • They can be either used in their natural form or processed form for consumption.
  • Examples: spices, fruit juices, eggs, herbs, edible yeast, vegetable juice.
  • Nature-identical flavoring substances: Nature-identical substances are the flavoring substances that are obtained by synthesis or are isolated through chemical processes in a lab but their chemical structures are identical to the substances present in natural products.
  • These flavorings do not contain any artificial flavouring substances.
  • Example: Vanillin, the main component of vanilla beans which can be produced as a natural or a nature-identical flavouring substance.
  • Artificial flavoring substances: Thease are substances that have no equivalent in nature.
  • These food flavorings are typically produced by fractional distillation and additional chemical manipulation of naturally sourced chemicals or from crude oil or coal tar.
  • Example: Ethyl vanillin, which is artificial and smells and tastes like vanillin yet is roughly three times more taste-intensive when added to ice cream, confectionery and baked goods.

Following are the most commonly used chemicals in food flavouring:

Chemical Flavour
Allylpyrazine Roasted nut
Methoxypyrazines Earthy vegetables
2-Isobutyl-3 Methoxypyrazine Green pepper
Acetyl-L-Pyrazines Popcorn
2-Acetoxy Pyrazine Toasted flavours
Aldehydes Fruity, green
Alcohols Bitter, medicinal
Esters Fruity
Ketones Butter, caramel
Pyrazines Brown, burnt, caramel
Phenolics Medicinal, smokey
Terpenoids Citrus, piney

Other Flavouring Categories include: [1]

  • Flavouring Preparations: These are not chemically defined substances but rather complex mixtures whose composition is defined by natural raw materials.
  • Like natural flavourings, flavouring preparations are extracted from plant, animal or microbiological source materials via biotechnical or physical production.
  • Flavouring preparations are often the main component of citrus, spice and mint flavourings.
  • Examples include: vegetable and fruit extracts, spice and herb extracts, yeast extract and essential oils. (e.g. clove oil) [2]
  • Thermal Process Flavourings: This type of flavouring is created by controlled heating of different food components such as amino acids and reducing sugars such as dextrose (glucose).
  • Although this process is done in an industrial setting, the flavours created are similar to those that would develop in home-cooking or baking. [1]
  • Smoke Flavourings: Smoking as a way of seasoning, preserving, and imbuing foods with a special smoked flavour has been around for centuries.
  • Freshly produced smoke is generated by burning hardwood at temperatures of up to 600°C in a controlled manner and in the absence of air.
  • The smoke that is created is very condensed and can be mixed with solvents such as cooking oil or table salt.
  • This process is most often done with fish, meat products (e.g. steak), sauces and potato chips. [1]

Food Flavourings and Health Risks

At the very least artificial food flavourings add no nutritional value to a food product. However at their worst they can pose a health risk – especially smoked foods which are both toxic and carcinogenic in nature.[2]

  • The process of smoking foods creates a number of toxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic components including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides.
  • Because the smoke contains nitrogen oxides the formation of nitrosamines may take place in smoked fish and meats. Nitrosamines are extremely carcinogenic.
  • Phenols and some of the carbonylic compounds (e.g. formaldehyde) in smoked food have also been shown to be carcinogenic in animals. [3]

Other health risks related to the consumption of artificial food flavourings include: [4]

  • Worsening of asthmatic symptoms
  • Development of allergies or food sensitivities and the appearance of hives (urticaria)
  • Dizziness
  • Abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe reactions can result in anaphylactic shock and even death

The best way to avoid the health risks associated with artificial and smoke flavourings is to eat a diet consisting of whole foods and organic meats and fish.

Specific Consideration

Following are some other aspects of food flavourings to bear in mind: [5]

  • In most cases, natural flavors are better then artificial but that doesn’t mean they are all necessarily healthy.
  • Many 'natural flavors' are made from artificial ingredients, but as long as the chemical compound of the end product is same as the natural counter parts, it can be labeled as natural.
  • It is also important to note that not all natural flavours are safe. An example of this is almond flavouring.
  • When almond flavour is derived from nature, traces of hydrogen cyanide which is a deadly poison can be found in it. However, when this flavour is made artificially by mixing oil of clove and amyl acetate, no cyanide is produced.
  • It’s important to note however, that regardless of the source, both natural and artificial benzaldehyde can cause central nervous system depression and convulsions.


The Canadian Food Inspection Agency governs the labelling of food flavourings in Canada and states the following:

When an artificial flavour (e.g., artificial apple flavour) is added to a food, whether alone or with natural flavouring agents, and a vignette on a food label suggests the natural flavour source (e.g., picture of an apple), a declaration that the added flavouring ingredient is an imitation, artificial or simulated flavour must appear on or adjacent to the vignette in both French and English. [6]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 European Flavour Association Retrieved 21 March 2012
  2. 2.0 2.1 UK Food Guide UK Food Guide, Retrieved 21 March 2012
  3. Council of Europe Health Aspects of Using Smoke Flavours as Food Ingredients [1] Retrieved 21 March 2012
  4. Bateson-Koch Carolee (1994) Allergies Disease in Disguise Books Alive
  5. Busch Felicia (2000) The New Nutrition: From Antioxidants to Zucchini New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc
  6. Canadian Food Inspection Agency Basic Food Labelling Requirements Retrieved 21 March 2012