Eli5 if natural flavours are heavily processed chemicals extracted from raw materials, what distinguishes them from artificial flavours?

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Eli5 if natural flavours are heavily processed chemicals extracted from raw materials, what distinguishes them from artificial flavours?

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marketing and regulations around marketing, more or less.

Legally, the division is around whether the compound occurs naturally in a plant or animal. If it does, it can be called natural flavoring. In either case it must be extracted, processed, and put into the food. The division between “natural” and “artificial” flavors is mostly meaningless beyond these regulatory requirements around naming.

“Natural flavors” means that the chemical compound making the flavor naturally exists in the source. So all you’re doing is pulling that chemical out.

“Artificial flavors” means that you don’t have the chemical at all, and are reproducing it in a laboratory by synthesizing it, putting other molecules and atoms together like building blocks in a chemical reaction to get the chemical you want.

So hypothetically, you could have two bottles of the exact same chemical, but one could be “natural flavors” if they made that bottle by pulling it out of a plant, and one could be “artificial flavors” if they made that bottle by producing it in a lab. The chemical is the exact same, it just depends where it comes from.

Natural flavors are extracted directly from plants, animals, and animal products. Artificial flavors are created via chemical reactions in a lab/factory. Often they are chemically the same compounds as their natural versions, just built by a different method.

An analog might be that natural flavors are like machining parts, ie using a lathe or CNC cutter to remove material from a raw chunk of material until what’s left has the right shape. While artificial flavors are like 3D printing where a raw material is manipulated to create the right shape directly.

This is probably more a legal question than a chemistry one.

In terms of chemistry, if a chemical is the same, it’s the same, whether it’s made from a plant or from petroleum.

However in terms of food labelling there is a difference.

Or there can be a difference, because obviously laws differ depending on where you are.

In the EU (and currently the UK) “natural flavourings” have to be entirely made up of naturally occurring substances, or substances created by traditional food preparation processes (like cooking or fermentation). If they refer to a food, animal, etc. they have to be at least 95% made from that thing, eg. “natural lemon flavouring” has to come 95% from lemons.