The Surprising Truth About How Many Chemicals Are In Everything We Eat


Taste and flavor are not the same thing, although the two are often confused.


Flavor is how we perceive food and other substances based on a combination of senses, which include taste, smell, and touch.

In addition, the idea that there is a difference between "natural" chemicals, like those found in fruits and vegetables, and the synthetic version of those chemicals is just a bad way of looking at the world.

All foods (and everything else around us) are made up of chemicals, whether they occur in nature or are made in a lab.

From the difference between real and imitation vanilla to chemicals that make up popular spices, here some some facts about natural and artificial flavors.


Although true taste occurs on the tongue, it is only one piece of the puzzle that makes up flavor. As much as 80% of what we perceive as taste actually comes from smell.

Everything we smell or taste is a response to chemicals. The characteristic smell of cloves, for example, comes from one chemical called eugenol.

So, both artificial and natural flavors contain chemicals. The distinction between natural and artificial flavorings is the source of chemicals. Natural flavors are created from anything that can be eaten (i.e animals and vegetables), even if those edible things are processed in the lab to create flavorings.

Artificial flavors come from anything that is inedible (i.e petroleum) that is processed to create chemicals of flavorings.


Here is the official FDA definition of natural flavoring:

"Natural flavor is the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional."

The FDA's definition of an artificial flavor is any substance that does not meet the definition of a natural flavor.

apothecary pharmacy medicine viles chemistry

Wikimedia Commons

Flasks for medicines, Santa Casa de Misericórdia de Porto Alegre, Brazil.


Sometimes a chemical flavoring could be made from either natural or artificial sources - the resulting molecule is the same, but the route to making it can be different.

So, why use artificial flavors at all? Well, the synthetic chemicals in artificial flavors generally cost less to produce than finding natural sources of chemicals. They are also potentially safer because they have been rigorously tested and used. Producing them can be more eco-friendly as well, since it doesn't require growing fields of food first.

The compound vanillin, for example, is responsible for the flavor and smell of vanilla. In nature, vanillin comes from an orchid native to Mexico. The process of extracting this pure, natural chemical is extremely lengthy and expensive. So scientists found a way to make a synthetic version of vanillin in a lab.


In 2006, Japanese researcher Mayu Yamamoto figured out how to extract vanillin from cow poop. She was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize at Harvard University for this development.


Sandra Mu/Getty Images

Most people don't realize that there can be as many chemicals in a food's natural flavor as its artificial counterpart. The number of chemical ingredients used to make the artificial strawberry flavor in a fast food strawberry shake, for example, is similar, chemically to the number of chemicals in a fresh strawberry.

Artificial grape-flavor is derived from a chemical in concord (purple) grapes - not the red or green grapes we're used to buying in supermarkets. This is why artificial grape-flavored things like candy, soft drinks and Dimetapp are purple and why store-bought grapes taste nothing like this fake stuff.


Some natural flavors can be more dangerous than the artificial ones. Traces of cyanide can be found in almond flavor, or Benzaldehyde, when derived from nature. That's why in movies, the smell of bitter of almonds on the victim is often linked to cyanide poisoning.

Bitter almond


Blossoms on a bitter almond tree.

Raw soybeans, from which soy sauce is made, are also toxic.

Raw Soybean


Industrial soy sauce (the stuff you find in convenient to-go packets) is made from acid-hydrolyzed vegetable protein, not boiled soybeans.


Soy sauce packet


Many people worry about "chemicals" like MSG added to their foods. The link between headaches and MSG, called "Chinese restaurant syndrome," is just a myth. Researchers think that symptoms related to eating Chinese food are caused by high amounts of salt.

MSG Crystals


Crystals of MSG.

Cinnamon, which is just the dried inner-bark of specific trees, gets its aroma and flavor from the compound cinnamaldehyde. There are three types of cinnamon: Indonesian (common cinnamon sticks), cassia and ceylon.

Cinnamon tree


Cinnamon tree.


Cassia, which primarily comes from China, is what most ground cinnamon in the United States is made from. It is dark in color, hard, thick and forms a "double scroll" when it's in a stick.

cassia cinnamon

Leslie Seaton/Flickr

Cassia cinnamon.

Ceylon, or "real cinnamon," is popular in Latin American countries. It is lighter in color, thinner and more brittle than cassia. It also has a lower percentage of cinnamaldehyde, which gives it a more subtle flavor. In the U.S., you can find ceylon in fancy grocery stores or Hispanic markets.



Ceylon cinnamon on the left. Indonesian stick cinnamon on the right.