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You know how you meant to eat just one of those candies or just a few of those chips, but you ended up eating the whole bag? Yeah, food companies love when that happens. In fact, they often pay food scientists to develop artificial flavors that trick your brain into thinking it needs to keep eating their product.

In all fairness, it’s not always the company’s goal to use these artificial ingredients to create a deep craving for their food. Sometimes they just want to simulate a particular flavor.

For example, maybe they want to give their beef jerky a smokey flavor, even though it hasn’t actually been smoked. Or they’ll add an oak note to a young whiskey to make it taste like an older whiskey that would have been aged in a barrel. Or they’ll add chemicals to butter in order to mimic the flavor of movie popcorn.

And sometimes these food scientists are tasked with making the impossible, possible. Take a chewy Starburst, for example. To create such a strong surge of flavor might take an entire field of strawberries for a single wrapped bite. Obviously, that’s not feasible or realistic.

So instead, these magicians head to the lab, where they’ll manufacture a chemical compound to mimic this highly concentrated flavor. And they’ll purposely design it to deliver a burst of flavor that is not only extremely intense — but also extremely short-lived.

We’ll talk about why our biology makes this burst of flavor is incredibly difficult to resist… and why we end up eating the whole package. Spoiler alert: the simple answer to breaking free is to avoid foods and sweets that list “artificial flavors” on the ingredients list and choose alternatives that use real food ingredients instead.

Starburst Artificial Flavors

In this article

How artificial flavors hijack your brain

Essentially, these scientists engineer our cravings – even an addiction – to the food they’re tasked with flavoring. Check out the video below. And if you don’t have time to watch the whole segment, at the very least, watch the short snippet from 2:33 to 3:30 to hear the scientists describe the seduction. Be forewarned, it is absolutely infuriating.

As you’ll see in the video, food scientists can isolate the natural flavor compounds of the real foods they are trying to mimic. Then they use synthetic chemicals to deepen that flavor and give it certain characteristics — such as that powerful, yet short-lasting surge of deliciousness — that trick us into eating more.

Why we crave more

But why isn’t our brain satisfied by that initial intense experience? Why does it crave more?

In a word, instinct.

Evolution has taught our brain (and our “gut-brain”) to associate specific micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.) with a specific flavor profile. This is how early humans learned to distinguish nutrient-rich, life sustaining plants from the toxin-containing botanicals that could harm or kill them.

So when we smell and taste a familiar flavor, but our body doesn’t get the nutrients it has instinctually learned to expect, things get a little confusing. Our brain will urge us to eat another… and another and another, until we find ourselves with a handful of empty wrappers and a dizzying sugar high.

I hate when that happens.

Unfortunately, food companies capitalize on this crave-inducing behavior to sell more product. Meanwhile, the western world (and now the eastern world) increasingly suffers from heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and a host of other food-related illnesses.

Natural flavors aren’t much of a step up

In response to consumer’s growing disgust of ‘fake foods’, several food companies are removing artificial flavors from their recipes. Unfortunately, many are replacing them with natural flavors. The resulting ingredients list may appear healthier, but it’s often just a bait-and-switch.

  • Artificial flavors come from non-edible sources, such as petroleum, and can be altered (with more chemicals) to taste like a natural flavor.
  • Natural flavors are derived from plant or animal materials, however, they may also contain a significant proportion (up to 80%) of emulsifiers, preservatives, solvents, and other “incidental additives”.

Because their unique recipes are considered trade secrets, manufacturers are not required to disclose any of the ingredients within either artificial or natural flavors on the label. Both artificial and natural flavors are developed in a lab and there is no chemical or nutritional difference between them. And both can trick our brains into overeating the foods they enhance.

Keep in mind that more mindful food companies will use real food ingredients to flavor their products. It can be difficult to distinguish the truly natural flavors from the lab-created ‘natural flavors’ we see on the label. To get the real stuff, look for additional wording such as “flavored with real food” or “all natural flavors” accompanied by the actual flavor ingredient.

Common examples of truly natural flavors include raspberry juice, lemon extract, cinnamon, and essential oil of peppermint.

If you made it this far, you’ll likely want to read: Replace the Processed Foods in Your Diet with Real Foods by Taking it One Step at a Time

Break free from the addiction

We’ve become so accustomed to these artificial flavors that we often begin to associate them with the real thing. In many cases, we even prefer them over the real thing! Grape soda, for example, isn’t made from grapes and, if you think about it, doesn’t even taste like grapes — at all. Yet, if someone blindfolded you for a taste test, you’d probably identify the flavor as grape because we’ve been so conditioned by these artificial tastes. Sigh.

The good news is that all is not lost. We can undo our associations to the synthetic flavors by simply avoiding foods that list either ‘artificial flavors’ or ‘natural flavors’ on the label. And of course, we can make our own foods from fresh ingredients, instead of buying pre-made packaged foods, whenever possible.

Depending on your usual diet, this transition can be a little jarring at first. Your taste buds might say, “this isn’t what I’m used to!” But the great thing is that our bodies adjust pretty quickly. The more you choose 100% natural flavors, the more you’ll see that good old Mother Nature has already given us plenty of incredible tastes to enjoy — no lab required.

And then, one day in the near future, you may decide to indulge in one of those brightly-colored candies you used to love… and you’ll hear yourself say: “Ugh, these taste like chemicals.


Natural Living Guide

Find practical tips & natural alternatives to the everyday chemicals that invade our lives.

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