Insights into Flavoring Clean Labels

Originally Published: December 20, 2017
Last Updated: February 9, 2021
If all flavor components are derived from the natural fruit, such as raspberries, the resulting flavor may be called natural raspberry flavor.

December 20, 2017 – The paradox of flavor is that its presence is tiny in the total composition of foods, yet it is a primary driver of consumer acceptance. Professor Robert J. McGorrin, Oregon State University, provided insights into flavoring clean labels as he explained, moreover, that flavor is only about 20% taste, while aroma accounts for 80%. Aromas must be volatile. Most are fat-soluble. Roughly 8,000 known aroma chemicals have been identified. “They are always organic molecules,” McGorrin said. “They contain carbon, and usually in combination with oxygen, nitrogen and/or sulfur. We perceive them two ways: by smell through the nose, ortho-nasally; and through the back of the mouth, retro-nasally.” That’s why food doesn’t taste good when a head cold’s congestion blocks the back sinus passages.

Tastants are non-volatile. They are water-soluble. There are five categories: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Chemesthesis is the third aspect of flavor. It’s a skin response in the mouth to chemical irritation. Sensations such as pepper burn or menthol cooling effects are examples.

Any natural flavor can contain 200-1,000 volatile constituents. “Those individual constituents are present anywhere from parts per million to parts per trillion,” he continued. All the aroma chemicals that nature provides have very different boiling points and polarities; and they differ in how they interact with the olfactory receptors in our nose and how we sensate these different chemicals.

Choosing the appropriate all-natural flavor is difficult for some applications due to factors, such as variability in compounds derived from natural sources, among other issues.

Variability in compounds derived from natural sources often increases difficulty in controlling the proper level of flavoring to use. Achieving the desired flavor intensity also is challenging, since the number of available ingredient tools is restricted. Additionally, botanicals and minerals that are added to achieve label claims can wreak havoc with the flavor system. “They will not only interact with the flavor, but sometimes contribute off-flavors, like chalkiness or bitterness,” McGorrin said.

Labeling can be a quagmire, both on the bulk flavor label of the container from a supplier and in the finished product ingredient declaration for the consumer. For example, there has been much discussion around propylene glycol, which is used as solvent in flavorings. In the U.S., a food manufacturer does not have to list it on the label, because it is used in such small quantities. However, for the purposes of transparency, often considered an important aspect of a clean label, a company may choose to list it as part of the ingredient legend.

When it comes to declaring the presence of a natural flavor, if all the flavor materials are from the named fruit, it may be called by its name. For example, “natural strawberry flavor” may be used if all components are naturally derived from strawberries. If the flavoring contains some quantity of the named flavor, but the rest of the flavor ingredients are natural but not from the named fruit, it would be labeled “natural strawberry flavor WONF” (with other natural flavors). “Natural strawberry-type flavor” indicates that the flavor portion is natural, and the aroma resembles the name, but it does not contain any flavor ingredients from the named fruit (i.e., strawberries). “Natural and artificial strawberry flavor” contains both natural and artificial ingredients that simulate, resemble or reinforce the named flavor. Non-flavor ingredients, such as an added carrier or color, do not affect the flavor name.

Creating globally compliant flavors has its own challenges, due to differences in international standards. Different countries have different approaches. Safety, labeling and intellectual property issues all come into play. “While small strides have been made to harmonize flavor regulations globally, there is still a long way to go,” he pointed out.

Clean labels are not based on legislation. The perception of clean labeling is consumer-driven, so McGorrin recommends using words that give the impression of real foods. He closed with two examples. The food industry recognizes oleoresin black pepper as a natural ingredient. Black pepper extract is more consumer-friendly. Consumers may not know what stevia is, but they may respond more favorably to whole-leaf stevia extract.

“Insights into Flavoring Use and the Impact of Clean Labels,” Robert J. McGorrin, Ph.D., Department Head and Jacobs-Root Professor, Food Science & Technology, Oregon State University,

This presentation was given at the 2017 Clean Label Conference. To download presentations from this event, go to

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