Whether it is candy, a cake, or ice cream, I’ve heard statements of preference given for one particular fruit flavor over another. What is it that turns some people on to certain fruits, while turning them off to others? How is it certain artificial flavors taste better than others?
The People Factor
Of course, there is personal preference. But if a large enough group of people who express their taste preferences is polled, and an overwhelming number of them agree they like or dislike a specific flavor, isn’t it fair to suggest it is not just a matter of personal preference?
Then, too, what if those polled say they dislike a particular artificial flavor, but they enjoy its natural flavor counterpart? Why is that? The no-brainer answer must be, the real and the artificial flavor are not all that similar! For instance, artificial watermelon doesn’t taste all that much like natural watermelon. The same can be said of artificial strawberry.
It Is True
Before we follow that path too far, however, it is good to note it is possible some people may enjoy an artificial flavor more than a natural flavor. Perhaps it does not happen that often, but certainly it is conceivable.
That is not so much the case with artificial lemon, however. People like it. They like natural lemon. The same thing for vanilla. But here’s the thing: in flavor, they don’t deviate all that much from each other. They at least closely resemble one another. How is it that commercial firms don’t come up with a better match for all the fruit (or other) flavors? Surely they want to sell their products…
It’s a Matter of Chemistry and Economics
Here’s the skinny. Artificial flavors usually consist of just a few chemicals, maximum. Lemon? Simple. Citric acid gives the in-you-face impression of lemon. Citric acid, citrus fruit? Exactly.
And vanilla. Artificial vanilla, called vanillin, consists of a solution of the major component of natural vanilla, as is discussed in the article, Vanilla and Vanillin: What’s the Difference?
Both major components, the one for lemon and the one for vanilla, can be made in the laboratory or in the factory. And they don’t cost all that much.
But what about, say, strawberry? Ah. There we have a different story. The flavor of natural strawberry is not so clearly distinguished by a single ingredient. It is the composite of all the flavor ingredients in the strawberry that its taste and aroma lie. How many of these are there? One reference refers to there being perhaps more than 350 aroma-related¹ ingredients in one strawberry, the Fragaria.
In an attempt to inexpensively imitate the flavor of a strawberry, the list is longer than most artificial flavors (see the reference). Even so, artificial strawberry rarely approaches the fragrancy and delicious taste of the real thing.
It reminds me of the preparation of a piece of wood furniture for staining and coating (we used shellac and varnish). Rough-sanding gives a first approximation of what you want to achieve. Fine-sanding improves upon that. But it is the polishing with steel wool that gives the smoothest and best result.
Thus, the definitive reason some artificial flavors are more popular than others, has to be the variety and complexity of the ingredients that make up the real thing, found in nature and nowhere else.
¹ It is well-known that aroma and flavor are closely entwined.
- Feingold.org: Artificial Strawberry Flavoring
- PLOS One: Strawberry Flavor: Diverse Chemical Compositions, a Seasonal Influence, and Effects on Sensory Perception