How Do Artificial Flavors Work?

By: Contributors & Yara Simón  | 
A selection of different colored gummies.
Artificial flavors are chemical mixtures that mimic natural flavors. Elizabeth Fernandez / Getty Images

Many of the processed foods you buy today come with an ingredient label that lists "artificial flavors" as one of the key ingredients. Artificial flavors are simply chemical mixtures that mimic a natural flavor in some way. You can find artificial flavorings in a wide range of products, including soft drinks, candies, baked goods, ice cream, snack foods, salad dressings, sauces and energy drinks.


Natural and Artificial Flavors

Natural flavors, or natural flavoring, derive from food sources, like fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices. They capture the essence of these ingredients through various extraction methods, providing recognizable taste experiences.

Any natural flavor is normally quite complex, with dozens or hundreds of chemicals interacting to create the taste and smell. But it turns out that many flavors — particularly fruit flavors — have just one or a few dominant chemical components that carry the bulk of the taste/smell signal. Many of these chemicals are called esters.


For example, the ester called octyl acetate (CH3COOC8H17) is a fundamental component in orange flavor. The ester called isoamyl acetate (CH3COOC5H11) is a fundamental component of banana flavor.

If you add these esters to a product, the product will taste, to some degree, like orange or banana. To make more realistic flavors you add other chemicals in the correct proportions to get closer and closer to the real thing. You can do that by trial and error or by chemical analysis of the real thing.

Artificial flavors are synthetic food additives and mimic the taste of natural flavors, though they do not come directly from food sources, including "spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products or fermentation products thereof."

Anything that we smell has to contain some sort of volatile chemical — a chemical that evaporates and enters a person's nose. The evaporated chemical comes in contact with sensory cells in the nose and activates them. In the case of taste, a chemical has to activate the taste buds.

Taste is a fairly crude sense — there are only four values that your tongue can sense (sweet, salty, sour, bitter) — while the nose can sense thousands of different odors. Therefore most artificial flavoring constituents have both taste and smell components.

Check the Ingredient List

While a food item might name an ingredient, like maple, the best way to know the difference between natural and artificial flavorings is to check the ingredients list.

As the FDA explains, "Current regulations allow use of terms like 'maple,' 'maple-flavored,' or 'artificially maple-flavored' on the food label without having any maple syrup in the product, as long as it contains maple flavoring ... If you want to know if maple products have real maple syrup, you must look at the ingredient list on the package."

The same goes with fruit flavors; you'll want to see whether the list includes fruit juice.


What Are Flavoring Agents?

Flavoring agents are substances used to enhance or impart specific tastes and aromas to food and beverages. There are hundreds of known flavoring agents that are normally mixed to create "known" tastes.

People make artificial grape/cherry/orange/banana/apple flavors, but it is very rare to mix up something that no one has ever tasted before. But it can and does happen occasionally — take Juicy Fruit gum as an example!


Flavor Chemists

A flavor chemist, or flavorist, is a highly specialized professional in the food and beverage industry. They create, develop and perfect the flavors and aromas used in various consumer products. Flavor chemists combine their knowledge of chemistry, sensory perception and culinary arts to design artificial and natural flavors that replicate the taste and scent of real ingredients.

Flavor chemists play a vital role in product innovation, quality control and meeting consumer preferences while adhering to safety regulations and industry standards. Flavorists might work with flavor companies or businesses that formulate, produce and supply a variety of natural and artificial flavoring compounds to enhance the taste and aroma of food and beverage products.


This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


Frequently Answered Questions

Are artificial flavors healthy?
Artificial flavors are not necessarily healthy, but they are not necessarily unhealthy either. It really depends on the particular flavor and how it is used. Some artificial flavors may contain unhealthy ingredients, while others may not.