Dear Ed Blonz: We mostly eat whole foods, but on occasion we use packaged products. I read labels and was wondering about the description “natural and artificial flavors.”

Are the natural flavors the same as what you would find in the actual food? If not, what does the term “natural flavor” mean, and is it any better or worse than the artificial flavor? - MQ, Baton Rouge

Dear MQ: All flavors come from collections of chemicals. To copy the flavor of a real substance for use in a processed food, a flavor chemist first identifies the compounds that create that real flavor.

To make an artificial flavor, the chemist then uses synthetic versions of those precise compounds to reconstruct a flavor similar to the genuine food. The task, ironically, becomes more complex when the copy is to be a “natural” flavor.

In that case, the compounds used come from natural substances, but they often have no relation to the flavor being produced.

Using strawberry as an example: A “natural” strawberry flavor may contain a pinch of flavor from the actual fruit, but the bulk of the strawberry taste is likely to come from other natural ingredients like bois de rose, an oil from the tropical rosewood tree.

Why not use the actual flavor substances from real strawberries to flavor food such as strawberry Jell-O or ice cream? This might seem preferable, but it’s impractical on any large scale.

As flavors go, natural ones are typically weak in intensity. Many are unstable and break down during processing or storage. In addition, natural flavors may interact with other ingredients or even with packaging materials.

There’s also a question of uniformity, since fresh foods in nature will often vary. Biting into a fresh orange that’s on the tart side wouldn’t stop you from eating oranges in the future, but an unpredictable taste in a processed food that contains “natural orange flavor” might be rejected for good.

But even if scientists could control the inconsistencies of the pure flavor, the supply couldn’t meet the demand. If manufacturers actually used extracts from real strawberries to flavor strawberry Jell-O, the world fruit supply would be exhausted in days.

To meet the demand for natural flavors, chemists search for flavorful food components that can work well in processed foods. They then catalog each component according to its taste profile.

When a flavor is needed, the flavor chemist combines these natural chemicals like pieces of a puzzle. It must be done with care or the final product will taste “off.”

Flavor companies make use of tasting panels to help them identify the combinations that work best. Since opinions about taste vary, one company’s version of a “natural” flavor may taste nothing like another’s.

The only way to avoid flavoring additives is to stick with fresh, whole foods. As for processed foods, while it may seem desirable to have “natural” or “nothing artificial” on the label, there’s not much being gained where flavors are concerned.

“Natural” flavors are copies made from natural, often exotic substances; “artificial” flavors are copies made with synthetic versions of the components in the original food. The bottom line is that there is no automatic taste or safety advantage that a natural flavor holds over its synthetic counterpart.

Ed Blonz, Ph.D., is a nutrition scientist and an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to theadvo Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided. ?2011 Edward Blonz. Distributed by Universal Uclick for UFS.