Artificial and Natural Flavoring? What Chemicals are you drinking?

Ive noticed that a high number of people on this site drink flavored teas but do they really know what chemicals they are ingesting?

There’s a huge amount of misinformation on what “Natural” flavoring exactly is. I for one don’t fully understand the process by which they can distill some of these scents but I have a sneaking suspicion that they are far from being healthy.

17 Replies
Dorothy said

Not to sound ungrateful, but could you link to an article that lists it’s sources? I’m interested in the flavorings, and couldn’t find where the author is getting the information from.

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I’m not claiming that that article is authoritative I only used that as one example. There are many links to various sources on the same subject, none of which seem to have any in depth scientific backing. The vary fact that manufacturers of flavoring do not need to list there ingredients is a little worrying.

I would simply stay clear of anything flavored unless it was from a essence. In which case the extraction method may use CO2 rather than isopropyl/ethyl alcohol.

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Uniquity said

As somebody who drinks a lot of flavoured tea, I’ve got to admit that I’m not that worried. I’ve grown up with flavoured juices, soft drinks – nearly every liquid and every food that became popular on the market during my childhood is a lot more likely to hurt me than tea, I would hope. It may be cavalier and irresponsible, but I’d rather my vice be tea than pop, or cigarettes, or alcohol, etc etc etc.

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That’s a very interesting topic! In China, people simple don’t accept teas that are flavored with sources other than real flowers or real fruits. I think teas flavored by natural chemicals such as essential oils can surely pass the healthy standards. But sometimes I wonder, when Earl Gray made his invention, how did he do it? With real bergamot or extracts? I don’t think he had any fragrant oil at that time, or did he?

And I think the main concern raised by Cloud mountain Tea is, there are some flavored teas that are made with unnatural chemicals. I think unnatural chemicals in food and beverage should always be a concern. I don’t drink much flavored tea. But I think once flavored-tea drinkers have this in mind, they can choose and support producers who use more natural flavoring materials.

Well, I don’t know how much of this is FACT, but the story behind Earl Gray is that he was just curious, and dropped a slice of bergamot in his cup of tea. If there’s an alternate/factual story about this tea, I don’t know it.

Spot52 select said

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Ottawa Tea said

The topic of natural vs. synthetic is always interesting. Heavy metals and arsenic are natural but certainly not good for your health. It’s simplistic to assume that natural = healthy.

That being said, it’s important to be aware of what is in your food, drink, water, and other consumables. Preferring natural flavors may be a value that is important to you, and thus be something to strive for. However, doing it because of the false dichotomy of natural = healthy and synthetic = unhealthy doesn’t have a good basis in evidence. Also important to consider is that the chemical composition of many flavors, whether natural or synthetic, would be the same. Indeed, there is even a scientific journal for this area, the journal “Flavor and Fragrance.”

I thought I should add a postscript, as this post may misrepresent my personal preferences: My favorite teas are unadulterated oolongs…the complexity of flavor that nature can produce is not replicable in a test tube (although primary flavors “apple” or “banana” may be)

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Simple said

One of the most beautiful things about tea is that it’s a leaf from a bush, you put it in your cup – add hot water and experience it’s delight. It can be as simple as that. It doesn’t need artificial anything if it’s good tea. You can flavor teas using herbs and spices for the creative blender’s, but why add unnatural things?

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SimplyJenW said

I have a feeling that we breathe in more chemicals than we have to worry about in our tea. I am not about to stop breathing, or drinking tea. And I am certain the tea is many times better than the soda I used to drink. It is not like we are ingesting the flavorings neat, or even eating the leaves (in most cases). What we actually ingest is more like the essence of the flavorings by the time a tea is steeped.

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Tea is better than soda, if its not covered in Petrochemical flavors. Do some research or just pretend its healthy because it tastes good.

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Well, of course, I would get drawn into this conversation, since our niche is really over-the-top flavored teas. Here’s my 2-cents:

A) Aritificial and natural flavors are much more alike than most people realize. When you say “natural flavors” people somehow assume that means someone took a strawberry and reduced it to it’s smallest element, and poof—natural strawberry flavor. The truth is that each fruit, vegetable, herb, botanical and whatever all else they use for these things breaks down into a myriad of tiny chemicals which contribute to a given item’s flavor profile. When they determine what chemicals compose a given flavor profile, they can find those chemicals in various other sources. Strawberry flavor may be comprised largely of a chemical that is present in strawberries, but much more prevalent and/or more easily extracted from celery. So, your natural strawberry flavor may end up having more celery than strawberry in it. The people who create these natural flavors are working with basic building blocks that they have discovered in different sources. I would venture to guess that most of the flavor houses don’t know and probably don’t care where a given compound comes from. They just know that x+y+z=strawberry, and they purchase x, y, and z from companies that specialize in extracting them from plant material. (I am guessing here, but I bet I’m right). The difference between natural and artificial flavors is that with the artificial flavors, someone actually had a natural compound and said, "I wonder how the flavor would change if I changed this part of the chemical, or merged it with this, or removed that… They then created something brand new. But in either case, the flavors are really combinations of tiny chemical elements, and a lot more chemistry than anything else. So, for anyone to say, “I prefer natural over artificial flavors,” you would have to have strong misgivings about the artificially created compounds (which have been around forever and are in just about everything, incidentally). Still, it’s fine if you prefer natural to artificial (and we at 52teas strive to use only natural flavors in our teas—probably more because of people’s misconceptions about the flavors than any other reason), just don’t kid yourself into thinking that your natural lemon flavor was created by someone who painstakingly distilled a whole lemon into some magic potion. It probably has chemicals extracted from strawberries and rhubarb.

B) Tea is VERY susceptible to flavors. The amount of flavoring needed to flavor tea is TINY—about 3% or not quite one gram per ounce. A large portion of that is ethyl alcohol, which is used as a carrying agent (as it evaporates, the flavor is carried through the tea on the wings of the evaporating alcohol). The flavor and the alcohol are water-soluble, so water is used to combine the two. In all, once the alcohol and water evaporate, you’re probably looking at something like .5% flavoring. It’s like getting a spec of dirt in your sandwich. Except, WOW, how cool is that tiny bit of something in something like our Black Currant Bai Mu Dan? or Coconut Cheesecake Honeybush?

C) Nature is not always so kind either. I grew up in the south, drinking sassafras root bark tea. If there was one thing I wish I could offer our customers, it would be some sassafras tea. It is DELICIOUS. But it is also a controlled substance now. The FDA determined that sassafras root bark contains safrole, which is a carcinogen. When this was discovered, it put root beer manufacturers in a pickle. The could no longer use the root bark extract to make root beer. So what did they do? They created an artificial root beer flavor. Imagine that. And if they hadn’t—we might have lost root beer forever. (How depressing is THAT?)

D) Yes, tea is an amazing beverage, and believe it or not, I do like to drink unflavored teas now and then, myself. But I also love the challenge of coming up with a new flavored blend every week. I love pushing the envelope and creating really unique, one-of-a-kind beverages that people from every corner of the planet seem to enjoy. I’ll take umbrage with anyone who wants to tell me that our teas are somehow inferior or tainted because we have dressed them up a little with spices, herbs, botanicals, fruits and/or flavors. We start with high quality teas and make them even better. Show me definitive proof that what we are doing is harming anyone, and I will close up shop immediately. Until then, I imagine there will always be someone trying to stir the pot; and I’ll just keep repeating what I’ve said here.


P.S. No, I haven’t forgotten about the Tea of the Week this week. It will be posted shortly.

Ottawa Tea said

Thanks for this really excellent synopsis, Frank. I’ll use the sassafras example next time I need a remedy to natural = necessarily good. I think part of the challenge is that when people don’t understand something, it is easy to consider it bad. Your explanation was very clear and I hope will dispel unfounded fears! (and with that, I could start a discussion of risk perception, being a social psychologist and all!)

Thanks, I’m glad you found it useful. Another tidbit: We recently created a bubblegum flavored honeybush, and I challenged our email subscribers (we often have little trivia challenges, etc) to tell me what bubblegum flavor was derived from—what fruits, etc. It was a trick question as the classic “bubblegum” flavor was developed by a flavor chemist. It was an artificial flavor to begin with. NOW, here’s where it gets interesing: I can actually now obtain “Natural” Bubblegum flavor, the whole idea of which kind of hurts my head.

LauraR said

Interesting and informative read. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

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I don’t have much say in this argument – I tend to stick purely to the pure teas.
My philosophy is that a quality tea doesn’t need anything extra. Flavoring is for the low-grade stuff that wouldn’t be worth selling otherwise.

I will say, though, that the article, while informative, is terribly written. The person used the term “natural and artificial” four times in the first paragraph, and the rest of the article continued that sense of careless and inexpert writing. It’s unfocused, unprofessional, and unorganized.

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