How Artificial & Natural Flavors Seduce Your Brain Into Eating the Whole Thing, When You Only Wanted a Bite

4 min read

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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 more.

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 flavor that is reminiscent of something else. For example, they want to add a smoky flavor to a beef jerky that hasn’t actually been smoked. Or they’ll add an oak note to a young whiskey in order to make it taste like an older whiskey that has been aged traditionally in an oak 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. For example, it might take a field of strawberries to create that strong surge of flavor in a single candy chew. That’s not feasible, so these magicians will synthesize that highly concentrated flavor in a lab. When they do, they will design the chemical compound to deliver a highly concentrated, but purposely short-lived burst of flavor that we can’t resist… which brings us back to why we eat the whole bag.

Starburst Artificial Flavors

Essentially, the scientists engineer the craving – even an addiction – to the food they’re tasked with flavoring. If you don’t have time to watch the entire video below, at the very least, check out the short snippet from 2:33 to 3:30 to hear the scientists describe the seduction. Be forewarned, it is absolutely infuriating.

How artificial flavors hijack your brain

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’ll use synthetic chemicals to deepen that flavor and give it certain characteristics, such as that powerful, but short-lasting surge of deliciousness, that trick us into eating 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 gut-brain to associate specific micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.) with specific flavors. 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.

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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” that they do not need to disclose on the label.

Both artificial and natural flavors are developed in a lab and there is no chemical or nutritional difference between them. In addition, 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 this 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 include raspberry juice, lemon extract, cinnamon, and essential oil of peppermint.

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. 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.

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