ELi5: How are “artificial” colors and flavors made?


Don’t the chemicals that make the flavors/colors have to come through natural sources?

In: Chemistry

Chemistry, but each one has a different synthesis process. For instance strawberry flavor is called 2-méthylpropanoate ethyl, it’s made with alcohol and carboxylic acid.

The base materials have to come from natural sources. The “artificial” part refers to how they’re put together. In nature, materials are converted into the desired molecule by organic catalysts inside cells. In industry, materials are converted into the desired molecule by catalysts (sometimes organic, sometimes inorganic) that are sometimes located in cells and sometimes not.

A catalyst is something that causes particular reactions to happen that wouldn’t normally occur. The way this works is very complicated and involves a field of physics related to magnets called “magic”. An organic catalyst is simply a catalyst produced by biological processes. They typically take the form of proteins called enzymes, which are really quite remarkable.

In industry, some chemicals can be made using inorganic catalysts, like platinum or nickel, and very specific materials and environmental conditions. Others are made by extracting the gene that codes for an enzyme from its original organism and implanting it into bacteria to produce huge quantities of the enzyme very efficiently, without having to grow an entire plant/animal.

Also, many artificial flavourings are actually not the same chemical used in the natural form, but a chemical that was produced coincidentally from another process and that people thought tasted a bit like a particular thing.

The other two comments on here are very correct. If you want a very short answer just Google source of imitation vanilla flavoring. It will ruin your day. And you will always buy natural vanilla extract after.