Barbeque flavored, hickory flavored, citrus flavored, mint flavored, grape flavored and on goes the list. From toothpaste and mouthwash to ice-cream, candy, and pizza, chances are whatever you pick today will include ‘artificial and natural flavors’ as ingredients. As of 2016, there were 2,700 natural or artificial flavors considered GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe). Flavors, in fact, are among the most common ingredients listed on labels. And there are plenty of reasons for that.

Flavors ensure your processed food is palatable. Have you also noticed that when a taste doesn’t linger, like it does in your favorite bubble-gum, you’re reaching for more? Flavorists tweak the combination of these chemicals so you want more. Flavors are the reason you dig into that bowl of BBQ flavored chips repeatedly, loop into the drive-through for mouth-watering French fries or take a second-helping of that crunchy pecan ice-cream. If you believe those French fries are just deep fried potatoes and salt—think again! Some French fries recipes include hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk. The resulting ingredient, Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer, is what makes fries so irresistible. MSG can be hidden under Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein in some products. According to a widely reported study, lab rats given MSG ate 40% more. This is because MSG tampers with the brain’s appetite regulation center, the hypothalamus, causing leptin resistance. Leptin is the hormone that controls satiety, a feeling of fullness. There are 151 other studies also linking MSG with obesity in humans and rats alike!

The chocolate chip flavor in those cookies you love? Yes, chemical flavors have been manipulated to create a bolder, instantly-gratifying, lip-smacking taste, to ensure you’ll be hooked. Again, that’s not just sugar in there. When salty and sweet flavors combine, the flavors meld, and the kick is twice as good as a single flavor by itself. Our brain experiences sensory specific satiety; it bores of the same taste over and over. The salt sugar ‘flavor layering’ is an antidote to sensory-specific satiety. Salt, a flavor enhancer, also enhances the sugar flavor. Think you can resist your fifth cookie? Unlikely! That cookie has been engineered to make that almost impossible.

Flavors also ensure that packaged food tastes fresh. According to EWG’s Food Scores, “to make a product like orange juice taste fresh after pasteurization, these chemicals have to be restored. They dupe your taste buds and smell receptors into believing you are drinking fresh orange juice when it really may be rather old.” But, no, flavors are not used to mask expired food. That should put to rest all the rumors that chocolate milk is spoiled white milk recycled with added flavors and color.

Still, there’s a movement afoot, demanding that the catch all term “natural and artificial flavors” be replaced with full disclosure of all chemicals. Full disclosure can help identify food allergies. Advocates also believe people have the right to know exactly what they’re ingesting, especially if they are inhibiting satiety receptors and the like.


When Sick, Why Can’t You Taste Your Food?

When we think flavors, we think of taste. However, flavors combine taste and smell. “Smell makes up 80 to 90 percent of the sense of taste. In processed food, this mixture of chemicals is called “flavor.” The same mixture of chemicals would be called “fragrance” if it were found in cleaning products, perfumes, or cosmetics. The difference between the two is small, and the companies that produce these secret mixtures are often exactly the same,” according to EWG’s Food Scores.


Natural or Artificial?

Most consumers instinctively consider natural flavors as good and artificial flavors not so. But as food scientist, Haider Khattak, Director, Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of Canada (IFANCC) will tell you there is no basis to it. Surprise, surprise! Both kinds of ingredients are typically made in a lab by a professional flavorist, mixing and matching chemicals together to achieve a certain flavor, he explains. There is little difference between them when it comes to safety or the “chemical structures of the individual molecules”. The distinction between natural and artificial flavors only refers to the source of their ingredients. Natural flavors are derived from plant or animal material.

“My father had me reading his scientific papers as early as elementary school and my very logical mom is very practical and sees no reason for not using artificial flavors instead of those expensive natural (ones) so I’ve actually heard all of this at home over the years,” says writer Linda Gardner, a daughter of scientists, living at the Deerpath Farm Conservation Community in Lake County, IL.

“Natural flavors are derived from natural sources, while artificial flavors are simpler versions created by people using chemical ingredients. Natural does not necessarily mean “healthier”, it just means “more expensive”. Chemically, the two versions may be very close or indistinguishable,” says Linda, a huge advocate of natural prefers whole foods (not to be confused with the store) for cooking and chooses natural vanilla for her cookies!

Food manufacturers would concur and even argue that artificial flavors are better because they contain fewer chemicals than natural ones and are simpler in composition. And, as Linda points out, they also cost less. gives an example. “Natural coconut flavorings, for example, depend on a chemical called massoya lactone. Massoya lactone comes from the bark of the Massoya tree, which grows in Malaysia. (Collecting this natural chemical also kills the tree because harvesters must remove the bark to obtain the lactone.) The process is costly. This pure natural chemical is identical to the version made in an organic chemist’s laboratory, yet it is much more expensive than the synthetic alternative.”


So What’s in a Halal Flavor?

More than 100 ingredients can go into creating a single flavor, explains Khattak. And all it takes is one of those ingredients to be considered non-halal to disqualify it from halal certification. What do halal food auditors look for when evaluating flavors? First, they assess whether the ingredients in a flavor are plant or animal derived. According to Khattak, flavor manufacturers do keep records of animal by-products used in the flavors. If there is a poultry or cattle derived ingredient in a particular flavor, manufacturers are required to show evidence of Islamic slaughter certification for qualifying as halal.

Smoke and grill flavors are extremely popular among consumers. In the flavor industry, animal fats or emulsifiers from animal sources are often used as a base for smoke or grill flavors. They act as preservatives for the meat and modify their taste. Smoke flavoring is among the most commonly used, says Khattak, and this smoke renders a food non-halal, if animal ingredients are used.

Similarly, they assess whether a flavor contains alcohol. To be considered halal, a flavor should be alcohol free or its alcohol content should be reduced to less than 0.5%. The alcohol used in the manufacture of the flavor should be derived from grain or synthetic sources and not from alcoholic drinks (Khamr). If a flavor is used in a product, the final product’s alcohol content must be less than 0.1%. “When we say alcohol, it means ethanol (ethyl alcohol). It is permissible to use alcohol for extracting the flavors or dissolving them so long as the alcohol is required for processing, not for the alcohol flavor itself, and the alcohol is not from alcoholic beverages. However, the amount of alcohol should be reduced to less than 0.5% in the flavor and to less than 0.1% in the final product where the flavor is used,” says Khattak. All types of vinegar, are permitted in Islam although it is a product of fermented alcohol. This fermentation process is a change in nature and is known as Istihala.

“Natural and artificial flavors in bakery products are the most important ingredients for halal consumers,” says Khattak. “They must be plant-based. Petroleum-based propylene glycol is considered a halal solvent for flavoring.”

There is in fact, a specialized field that studies the perception of flavor. It combines food science, neuroscience, and psychology and is called Neurogastronomy—a worthy discipline to study given the tricks taste buds play on the mind. Unless you’ve made it from scratch, the next time you’re enjoying your food a bit too much, whether at a restaurant or out of a box, maybe it’s time to ask why.

Naazish YarKhan ( is a writer, editor and a college essay coach and has contributed to NPR, PRI and more.