Author: Skratch Labs Founder & Sports Physiologist, Dr. Allen Lim
When we are sweating, working out, and thirsty, drinking something with a little bit of sugar and an electrolyte profile that matches what’s actually lost in sweat helps us to hydrate and perform better than water alone, especially during our hardest, longest, and hottest workouts.
Unfortunately, when we started making our own sports-drink, we quickly learned that a solution with an electrolyte profile that matched sweat tasted awful, even if it was slightly sweet. We needed a way to either mask or flavor that naked taste or the athletes we worked with would never drink it, even though it was functionally better than other sports drinks.
While figuring out what we functionally needed in a sports-drink was relatively straightforward, I had no clue how to create flavors. The only thing I knew about flavors at the time was that everything we drank, outside of tea, coffee, and fresh juice, had either an artificial or natural flavoring agent. Assuming that a natural flavoring agent was better than an artificial flavoring agent, I found specialty dealers that sold natural flavors and I figured I could just blend them into our drink mix.
But, the natural flavoring agents I got never mixed right. I was using a home blender to make drink mix and the flavoring agents were super fine powders that never seemed to disperse homogeneously between the larger grains of sugar and salts that they needed to be mixed with. Moreover, these natural flavors were really powerful, so it was really difficult to not overdo it. Trying to get a little bit of flavoring ingredient to blend evenly across a lot of other ingredients was really frustrating, especially while trying to make drink mix late at night in foreign hotel rooms. My short-term solution was to just use packs of Kool-Aid at half to quarter strength. While this helped to make the drinks taste good, after consuming many bottles, athletes still complained that they were getting flavor fatigue - a palette overwhelmed by flavors stuck in one’s mouth.
All of this got me asking one really simple question - what in the world is a “Natural Flavor?”
Luckily, finding the definition of a “natural flavor” was a lot easier than working with them. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has an entire set of regulations that define both artificial and natural flavors. Based on the FDA’s definition (1):
“The term artificial flavor or artificial flavoring means any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof.”
“The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means 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 similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”
Essentially, an artificial flavoring agent is not derived from a plant or animal source, whereas a natural flavor is. So you could have a chemical structure that makes your tongue and brain think that something tastes like strawberry and if that chemical structure was made from a plant or animal it’s considered natural. If that same chemical structure was made synthetically and not originally derived from a plant or animal then it would be considered artificial. In either situation, the chemical creating that strawberry flavor on one’s tongue would be the same.
Outside of concerns that a natural flavoring agent might be derived from beaver anal glands (i.e., castoreum) (2), what’s of real concern with these definitions is that, beyond telling consumers that the flavoring agent is either derived from a natural source or an artificial source, they don’t actually describe the specific source (if natural) nor do they describe the actual chemical nature or structure of the flavoring agent. Unless you’re the flavor manufacturer or perhaps the food manufacturer, it’s nearly impossible to know what’s actually in a given natural or artificial flavoring agent. And while there’s automatically a negative connotation to the term “artificial” flavor, it’s very likely that in many cases artificial and natural flavors can effectively be the same thing.
While, I’m willing to assume that it’s all good and the vagueness of definition isn’t of any real concern - that we’re perfectly fine and healthy consuming vast amounts of natural and artificial flavoring agents - this didn’t quell the issue of flavor fatigue that we experienced when we tried using “natural” flavoring agents. The bottom line is that a flavoring agent, whether natural or artificial, is designed to consistently and powerfully evoke a taste. While this is great from the perspective of a manufacturer who wants to literally create an addictive taste profile, it’s not necessarily a great thing if you’re an athlete who wants a subtle taste that doesn’t destroy one’s palette after hours of drinking something.
Vexed by this situation, we asked ourselves this simple question; if we wanted something to taste like strawberry, why couldn’t we just use strawberry? Or oranges for orange, lemons and limes for lemon and lime, or passion fruits for passion fruit? Not knowing any better we bought some freeze-dried fruit powder and tried. And it worked. Not only was it a whole lot easier to blend and play with flavor profiles, using the real fruit eliminated the flavor fatigue we were getting using flavoring agents. Moreover, we had the added functional and nutritional benefit of real fruit. The antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins that naturally exist in fruit were now a functional part of our drink.
Although we didn’t initially set out to use real fruit to flavor our hydration drink mixes, doing so solved some real problems that plague sports-drinks and most beverages. More than the inherent mystery surrounding “natural” or “artificial” flavoring agents is the irony of flavor fatigue created by chemicals designed to mimic specific foods. So rather than creating the chemical that makes a particular fruit taste like that fruit, we took the simple, less is more approach of using the actual fruit. It’s not rocket science, but when it comes to making your own drink from scratch, having the clean taste and functional benefits of real fruit is a whole lot better than drinking jet fuel.
1) U.S. Food and Drug Administration. CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. 2016. [https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=501.22]