What is Flavor?

Flavor or flavour (see spelling differences) is the sensory impression of a food or other substance, and is determined mainly by the chemical senses of taste and smell. The "trigeminal senses", which detect chemical irritants in the mouth and throat, may also occasionally determine flavor. The flavor of the food, as such, can be altered with natural or artificial flavorants, which affect these senses.

Of the three chemical senses, smell is the main determinant of a food item's flavor. While the taste of food is limited to sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami, and other basic tastes, the smells of a food are potentially limitless. A food's flavor, therefore, can be easily altered by changing its smell while keeping its taste similar. No where is this better exemplified than in artificially flavored jellies, soft drinks and candies, which, while made of bases with a similar taste, have dramatically different flavors due to the use of different scents or fragrances.

Although the terms "flavoring" or "flavorant" in common language denote the combined chemical sensations of taste and smell, the same terms are usually used in the fragrance and flavors industry to refer to edible chemicals and extracts that alter the flavor of food and food products through the sense of smell. Due to the high cost or unavailability of natural flavor extracts, most commercial flavorants are nature-identical, which means that they are the chemical equivalent of natural flavors but chemically synthesized rather than being extracted from the source materials.


Flavorants are focused on altering or enhancing the flavors of natural food product such as meats and vegetables, or creating flavor for food products that do not have the desired flavors such as candies and other snacks. Most types of flavorants are focused on scent and taste. Few commercial products exist to stimulate the trigeminal senses, since these are sharp, astringent, and typically unpleasant flavors.

The precise definition of a flavorant is difficult since its literal definition includes anything that contributes flavor to food. A legal definition by the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, a natural flavorant[1] is:

"the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or any other edible portions of a plant, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose primary function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional."

Artificial flavorants are chemically synthesized compounds that are used to flavor food items but do not meet the specifications listed above. Artificial flavorants are often formulated with the same chemical compounds found in natural flavorants.

Although slightly different, the European Union's guidelines for natural flavorants are somewhat similar. In addition, certain artificial flavorants are given an E number, which may be included on food labels.


Smell flavorants, or simply, flavorants, are engineered and composed in similar ways as with industrial fragrances and fine perfumes. To produce natural flavors, the flavorant must first be extracted from the source substance. The methods of extraction can involve solvent extraction, distillation, or using force to squeeze it out. The extracts are then usually further purified and subsequently added to food products to flavor them. To begin producing artificial flavors, flavor manufacturers must either find out the individual naturally occurring aroma chemicals and mix them appropriately to produce a desired flavor or create a novel non-toxic artificial compound that gives a specific flavor.

Most artificial flavors are specific and often complex mixtures of singular naturally occurring flavor compounds combined together to either imitate or enhance a natural flavor. These mixtures are formulated by flavorist to give a food product a unique flavor and to maintain flavor consistency between different product batches or after recipe changes. The list of known flavoring agents includes thousands of molecular compounds, and the flavor chemist (flavorist) can often mix these together to produce many of the common flavors.

Chemical Odor
Diacetyl Buttery
Isoamyl acetate Banana
Cinnamic aldehyde Cinnamon
Ethyl propionate Fruity
Limonene Orange
Ethyl-(E, Z)-2,4-decadienoate Pear
Allyl hexanoate Pineapple
Ethyl maltol Sugar, Cotton candy
Methyl salicylate Wintergreen
Benzaldehyde Bitter almond

The compounds used to produce artificial flavors are almost identical to those that occur naturally, and a natural origin for a substance does not necessarily imply that it is safe to consume. In fact, artificial flavors are considered somewhat safer to consume than natural flavors due to the standards of purity and mixture consistency that are enforced either by the company or by law. Natural flavors in contrast may contain toxins from their sources while artificial flavors are typically more pure and are required to undergo more testing before being sold for consumption.

Flavors from food products are usually result of a combination of natural flavors, which set up the basic smell profile of a food product while artificial flavors modify the smell to accent it.


While salt and sugar can technically be considered flavorants that enhance salty and sweet tastes, usually only compounds that enhance umami, as well as other secondary flavors are considered taste flavorants. Artificial sweeteners are also technically flavorants.

Umami or "savory" flavorants, more commonly called "taste enhancers" are largely based on Amino acids and Nucleotides. These are manufactured as sodium or calcium salts. Umami flavorants recognized and approved by the European Union include:

  • Glutamic acid salts: This amino acid's sodium salt, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is one of the most commonly used flavor enhancers in food processing. Mono and diglutamate salts are also commonly used. 
  • Glycine salts: A simple amino acid that is usually used in conjunction with glutamic acid as a flavor enhancer. 
  • Guanylic acid salts: Nucleotide salts that is usually used in conjunction with glutamic acid as a flavor enhancer. 
  • Inosinic acid salts: Nucleotide salts created from the breakdown of AMP. Due to high costs of production, it is usually used in conjunction with glutamic acid as a flavor enhancer. 
  • 5'-ribonucleotides salts

Certain organic acids can be used to enhance sour tastes, but like salt and sugar these are usually not considered and regulated as flavorants under law. Each acid imparts a slightly different sour or tart taste that alters the flavor of a food.

  • Acetic acid: gives vinegar its sour taste and distinctive smell 
  • Citric acid: found in citrus fruits and gives them their sour taste 
  • Lactic acid: found in various milk products and give them a rich tartness 
  • Malic acid: found in apples and gives them their sour/tart taste 
  • Tartaric acid: found in grapes and wines and gives them a tart taste 

Dietary restrictions

Food manufacturers are sometimes reluctant about informing consumers about the source from where the flavor is obtained and whether it has been produced with the incorporation of substances such as animal by-products glycerin, gelatin, and the like, and the use of alcohol in the flavors. Muslims, Orthodox Jews and Hindus adhere to religious laws, and vegans to personal morals, that restrict the use of animal by-products and alcohol in foods unless subject to oversight and inspection by their respective religious authority or less-strict or circumstantial moral belief.

Flavor creation

Most food and beverage companies do not create their own flavors but instead employ the services of a flavor company. Food and beverage companies may require flavors for new products, product line extensions (e.g., low fat versions of existing products) or due to changes in formula or processing for existing products.

The flavor creation is done by a specially trained scientist called a "flavorist." The flavorist's job combines extensive scientific knowledge of the chemical palette with artistic creativity to develop new and distinctive flavors. The flavor creation begins when the flavorist receives a brief from the client. In the brief the client will attempt to communicate exactly what type of flavor they seek, in what application it will be used, and any special requirements (e.g., must be all natural). The communication barrier can be quite difficult to overcome since most people aren't experienced at describing flavors. The flavorist will use his or her knowledge of the available chemical ingredients to create a formula and compound it on an electronic balance. The flavor will then be submitted to the client for testing. Several iterations, with feedback from the client, may be needed before the right flavor is found.

Additional work may also be done by the flavor company. For example, the flavor company may conduct sensory taste tests to test consumer acceptance of a flavor before it is sent to the client or to further investigate the "sensory space." The flavor company may also employ application specialists who work to ensure the flavor will work in the application for which it is intended. This may require special flavor delivery technologies that are used to protect the flavor during processing or cooking so that the flavor is only released when eaten by the end consumer.

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