QUESTION:What’s the difference between natural and artificial flavorings, other than price? (Asked by another curious cook.)

REPLY: Many food labels have “natural flavoring” or “artificial flavoring,” and you can buy natural and artificial flavorings for cooking. What’s the difference? Well, a lengthy federal regulation (which I have summarized here) defines a natural flavor as an essence or extractive containing the flavoring constituents derived from spice, fruit, herb, bark, etc., whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

Anything else is artificial. Most natural and artificial flavors are the same chemical compounds, differing only in their source. Both are processed to ensure purity. Some taste alike, but in other cases there’s a noticeable difference to one’s taste. When a chemical (artificial flavoring) is used to mimic a food taste, flavor may be affected.

As an example of flavoring, let’s consider vanilla, commonly used in cooking and baking. You have pure vanilla extract, imitation vanilla extract, and vanilla flavoring. Pure (natural) extract comes from vanilla beans, which are expensive; thus, the price of pure extract is high, depending on the quality of the beans. The vanilla flavor from the beans is extracted in alcohol. Such pure vanilla extract will last indefinitely, aging like fine liquor.

Imitation vanilla extracts are made from artificial flavorings, some of which come from wood byproducts. As a result of other chemicals, imitation vanilla products tend to have a harsher taste, and more of the imitation is needed to get the taste of the natural product.

Vanilla flavoring is usually a combination of imitation and pure vanilla extracts and is cheap in price and comparative in flavor.

C.P.S. (Curious Postscript):“The road to success is always under construction.” – Anonymous

Curious about something? Send your questions to Dr. Jerry D. Wilson, College of Science and Mathematics, Lander University, Greenwood, SC 29649, or e-mail Selected questions will appear in the Curiosity Corner. For Curiosity Corner background, go to