Sources of Flavours

Foods may contain more than a thousand chemical compounds that contribute to their flavour. Many of these naturally occurring compounds may be too unstable to be used in commercial flavourings where they may need to be stored for some time before being used. For this reason, 'copies' of the natural flavour are often developed.

Flavourings are used in food products at very low concentrations. They are normally made from a mixture of substances which provide a flavouring of suitable strength that can be stored and then used in the food production process.

There are four categories of flavourings:

Categories of Flavourings
Category Description Example

Flavouring substances

Chemical substances with flavouring properties

Natural flavours

These are f rom animal and vegetable sources. They may be used raw or can be processed by physical, microbiological or enzymatic methods during food processing.

Natural citral is extracted from lemon grass and natural benzaldehyde from bitter almonds.

Nature identical flavouring

Chemically identical to natural flavourings but are prepared or extracted using chemical methods. They are identical to the molecules found in nature and the body cannot distinguish between them.

Nature identical flavouring substances include: ethyl acetate (identical in nature to many fruits) and decanal (nature identical to orange). Vanillin may be obtained from vanilla pods but the flavour is now produced chemically from a plant material called lignin.

Artificial (i.e. not nature identical)

Compounds which are not chemically identical to natural flavouring substances. Examples are ethyl vanillin or ethyl maltol which have not been identified in nature.

vanilla pods

Vanilla pods

bottle of vanilla flavouring

Vanilla flavouring

Flavouring preparations

Other materials can have a flavouring effect. Essential oils and even fruit juices come into this category if they are used for their flavouring properties. They are obtained from animal or vegetable material by physical methods, enzymes or fermentation and are classified as natural.

Vanilla extract is obtained from vanilla pods.

bottles of oil

Essential oils

Process flavourings

Produced by heating together substances which individually may not have flavouring properties. One of these must contain an amino group (-NH2) and the other must be a reducing sugar. This process is similar to the changes that happen when a food is cooked. These flavours are found in gravy granules.

gravy granules

Gravy granules

Smoke flavourings

Extracted from smoke and give the same flavours as those produced during the traditional food-smoking process where foods are left in wood smoke for several hours. For example, smoked salmon or smoked kippers.

Smoke flavours may actually be safer than the traditional smoking process. Harmful chemicals, found in wood smoke, are removed as much as possible from the smoke flavouring.

smoked fish

Smoked Kippers

Monosodium Glutamate

Monosodium glutamate, MSG (E621) is a salt of glutamic acid, one of the building blocks that make up animal and vegetable proteins. It occurs in virtually all protein containing foods including meats, fish, vegetables and dairy products. Various cheeses, tomatoes, peas and mushrooms are among the foods richest in glutamate. Glutamate from our diet is a source of energy for the digestive system, and the human body itself produces around 48 grams of glutamate every day. Glutamate is found in abundance in mothers' milk, at levels about ten times that found in cows' milk. The glutamate naturally present in food and the glutamate derived from MSG are treated by the body in exactly the same way.

In 1907 a Japanese scientist observed that there was a taste, common to many savoury foods, which did not fall into the category of the four well known tastes of sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Professor Ikeda called this new taste "umami". Through experiments with stock prepared from kombu seaweed (an ingredient in traditional Japanese cuisine) he identified glutamate as the source of umami and decided to use it to produce a food seasoning. MSG was first marketed in Japan in 1909.

Doubt was thrown on the safety of monosodium glutamate when reports of nausea, numbness and dizziness were linked to its use. This became known as 'Chinese restaurant syndrome'. Despite this hundreds of studies conducted by scientific and regulatory authorities, including the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, the US Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association have repeatedly affirmed its safety.