Synthetic vs. Natural Flavors: How Science in Food Production Is Protecting Natural Resources

Today, it seems that many consumers are demanding that the food and beverage industry use more natural flavors and chemicals in products as opposed to synthetic alternatives. One of the problems with this demand is that natural flavors are both more time consuming and expensive to produce. In addition, by 2025 the world’s population is forecasted to exceed 8 billion people. Due to this growing population, the earth cannot produce enough “natural flavored” ingredients to meet all of our needs without completely destroying our environment.

Synthetic flavors and chemicals can replace natural flavors!
Synthetic chemicals have the potential to save the environment.
Courtesy of Wiki Commons

In order to help protect the environment and to meet the increased needs of billions of people, the food and beverage industry will have to rely more and more on synthetic chemicals instead of natural ones. Additionally, they will need to implement more efficient ways of handling these chemicals if they want to have a real impact on the environment.

The terms “natural flavors” and “natural chemicals” generally refer to those ingredients that are derived from some process applied to a natural ingredient. Some people falsely believe that if Mother Nature helped to create the ingredient, then it must be safer to use and better for you than a man-made alternative.

However, the problem with this approach is that Mother Nature usually cannot produce enough natural flavors or natural chemicals to completely address the demands of the food and beverage supply chain. Without human innovation and intervention, Mother Nature would leave hundreds of orders unfulfilled.

Unfortunately, the steps we take to expand production sometimes have a negative effect on the environment. To increase crop yields of natural ingredients, we add fertilizers and pesticides to the ground, and destroy forests and animal habitats to clear land for increased production.

To illustrate my point, let’s take a closer look at the supply chain for vanilla, a chemical used in food products like coffee and ice cream, as a fragrance within the consumer packaged goods industry, as well as a general purpose stain within the laboratory to separate non-volatile mixtures.

According to industry reports, the demand for vanilla in 2010 was approximately 15,000 tons, but only 2,000 tons of natural vanilla was produced. The reason for the low natural production quantity is because in nature, vanillin, the chemical that gives vanilla its taste and aroma, is only found in a vining orchid plant in Mexico. The extraction process to create “natural” vanillin is both time-consuming and expensive. Expanding production to produce an addition 13,000 tons would require the dedication of additional farmland in Mexico, pesticides, human labor, and lots of warehouses for the drying process. Expanding production would have a severe environmental impact on the region in Mexico where the orchid is grown.

vanilla bean bundles
Vanilla Production in Mexico cannot meet world demand.
Courtesy of Flickr user Augustine Fou

Fortunately, researchers identified the chemical structure of vanillin as early as 1874. Once the chemical structure was identified, it was discovered that it could be synthetically derived from coniferin, a glycoside found in pine bark. Synthetically creating vanilla from pine bark ensured that consumer demand would be met without a devastating toll on the environment.

Since that time, scientists have discovered many different ways of synthetically create vanillin. In 2006, Japanese researcher Mayu Yamamoto was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize at Harvard University because she developed a way of extracting vanillin from cow excrement. This not only saves the environment but also creates a useful substance from what is usually a waste product.

Vanilla is not the only example in which a synthetic chemical is easier to produce in mass quantities than its natural counterpart. Soy sauce can be made out from acid-hydrolyzed vegetable protein, rather than boiled soybeans. Strawberry, grape and many other fruit flavors can also be mass produced in the laboratory.

But what about safety concerns? The interesting thing about the use of synthetic chemicals is that, due to regulations, they have to go through a battery of tests before they can be used in food products. According to John H. Cox, the executive director of Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, “When a flavorist creates a flavor from scratch it can be guaranteed that every component of the flavor has been safety-tested and verifiably approved for consumption.” However, natural flavors are not tested in the same way.

The increased use of synthetic chemicals does create a conundrum for the food and beverage industry, with a larger focus needed regarding chemical management. To properly manage chemicals, food and beverage companies may want to consider investing in a chemical inventory management system, like Accelrys’ CISPro. The advantages from such an investment include:

  • The ability to track chemicals throughout their entire lifecycle from purchase to disposal
  • Safety Data Sheets can be input directly from the chemical manufacturers into the system for easy reference
  • A detailed list of on-hand chemical inventory and their location anywhere on site, whether in the warehouse or the lab.

To support our growing population, synthetic chemicals will have to be used more frequently than natural chemicals and flavors. However, this might just be necessary in order to preserve and protect our environment.

If you would like more information regarding best practices for tracking chemical inventory, please visit our website today.

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