Consumers face an overwhelming number of options on store shelves these days, many draped in labels making claims like “natural” and “eco-friendly”. Unfortunately, many of these claims are questionable at best. Artificial flavors have a negative connotation, but that reputation is largely unearned. Most artificial flavorings have identical chemical structures compared to natural flavorings, despite being created in a lab. 

What Are Artificial Flavors?

All flavor additives are complex mixtures. Artificial flavors are synthesized in a laboratory environment and contain specific formulas that include food-grade solvents, emulsifiers, flavor modifiers, and preservatives. 

Natural flavors are also precise formulas. The only real difference between natural and artificial flavors is that natural flavors are “derived from plant or animal material”. Depending on the product and end-use applications (what the flavor is being added to), some natural flavorings may even include a small amount of synthesized materials. 

Read more: Do Volatile Organic Compounds Cause Cancer?

Regulating Artificial and Natural Flavors

The Food and Drug Administration maintains a list of nearly 700 artificial flavoring chemical and additives it deems as “generally recognized as safe”, or its GRAS-approved list. The FDA faces considerable pressure to maintain a relatively hands-off approach to flavor regulation. The flavor industry alone is worth $24 billion annually, largely controlled by three or four massive international companies. 

Are Artifical Flavors Safe?

Most research shows artificial flavors are no more harmful than natural flavors, but it’s important to note that neither type of flavoring is regulated as strictly as consumers might expect. Most flavor products are only tested internally by their designers, and with dozens of ways to formulate a single flavor, both natural and artificial flavorings can cause allergic reactions or irritation in some individuals. This is of particular concern for those with severe food allergies or digestive issues like Irritable Bowel Syndrome. 

Artificial Flavors and Cancer

Several studies have linked specific artificial flavor ingredients with cancer. Researchers discovered a link between several artificial flavorings and cancer, all of which were commonly used in a number of food and beverage products. These substances include:

  • Benzophenone
  • Ethyl acrylate
  • Eugenyl methyl ether
  • Myrcene
  • Pulegone
  • Pyridine
  • Styrene

All of these ingredients are possible carcinogens and have since been banned by the FDA. More research is needed to clarify the link between artificial flavors and cancer, but similar efforts should examine more complex natural ingredients as well. 

Authentic Cancer Prevention Matters

Individuals and families can reduce cancer risks by eating fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables and avoiding processed foods whenever possible. Combined with regular exercise and access to quality healthcare, everyone deserves the opportunity to live happy, healthy lives. We’re doing our part. For over twenty years, Less Cancer has helped empower, educate, and prioritize cancer prevention as a core component of public health. Learn more about our work and consider donating today.