The Evolution of Natural Flavors and Ingredients

Although natural flavors are the fourth most common ingredient listed on food labels, many people don’t know what the term means. Where do these flavorings come from, and how do we extract them from nature? Keep reading to learn more about how natural flavorings found their way into modern food processing, why we use them, and some common ingredients they contain.
What is Natural Flavoring?
The FDA defines and regulates the term “natural flavoring” based on its function and source. These flavorings may include any substance extracted from plants, animals, or microorganisms that adds flavor or aroma to food without affecting its nutritional value. We typically obtain natural flavors through extraction, distillation, heating, roasting, and enzymolysis.
Natural flavorings often contain a combination of isolated plant compounds to re-create the taste of fresh produce or cooked food. They make processed food and beverages taste better and are more shelf-stable than whole grains, spices, and herbs, which may affect a packaged product’s texture and moisture content.
A Brief History of Natural Flavoring Ingredients
Humans have been using herbs and spices to flavor food since the dawn of time, and many ancient civilizations built their economies on the spice trade. Essential oils were the first processed flavoring ingredients, emerging in ancient Egypt, Persia, and India in the 11th century. The Arabs were the first to discover distillation as a method for isolating essential oils from plants, which soon became standard practice in medieval pharmacies across Europe.
Vanillin was the first organic compound flavorists isolated from a plant, paving the way for today’s multi-billion dollar vanilla extract market. Military rations during WWII helped develop the processed food industry in the US, which gave rise to synthetic flavors. However, the demand for artificial flavorings has dropped since the 1960s and 70s as more health-conscious consumers seek natural ingredients in convenience foods.
5 Popular Natural Flavoring Ingredients in Processed Foods

  1. Amyl acetate is a natural compound with a distinct banana-like smell that many flavorists use to enhance chewing gum, fruit candy, baked goods, and other processed foods. For example, we can extract amyl acetate from banana and pear oil.
  2. Benzaldehyde is a colorless liquid with a pleasant almond odor. Its presence in nature is widespread and is found primarily in pit-bearing fruits, such as cherries, plums, apricots, and peaches. Scientists discovered benzaldehyde in 1803, which is still a popular natural flavoring for confectionery today.
  3. Citral is the primary chemical compound in citrus fruit peels and various essential oils. It has natural anti-microbial properties and adds a bright lemony aroma and taste to food, beverages, and cosmetics.
  4. Eugenol is an aromatic oil extracted from cloves and in small quantities in cinnamon and other spices. It’s a popular flavoring ingredient for meat, cakes, and herbal teas and is celebrated for many medicinal uses. Eugenol has anti-inflammatory properties and is a common ingredient in any topical lotions.
  5. Acetoin is a product of yeast fermentation and an energy store for various types of bacteria. This compound gives butter its characteristic flavor and adds a rich, buttery scent to processed foods and baked goods. You can also use acetoin to create butter-flavored seasonings.

Natural flavorings are a widespread solution to enhancing the taste and smell of processed and packaged foods without synthetic additives. Technological advancements throughout history allow us to isolate and extract singular plant compounds that flavorists can use to build complex, nuanced flavor and scent profiles. Advanced Biotech is a leading supplier of natural flavorings and aromatics for the food and beverage industry. Please contact us for more information.