What about artificial flavors in tea?
Then there are artificial flavors, and it is a tendency to look at them negatively. However, not all artificial flavors are the same. I’m sure most people think of some giant vat of toxic chemicals that dissolve metal as the basis for anything labeled ‘artificial’. However, in loose tea, most blenders will use an artificial flavor categorized as ‘nature identical’. Here is where things get real interesting. In Europe, products with nature identical flavors are not labeled as artificial, but cannot use the term natural flavor. A nature identical flavor means it’s the same molecule as what is found in nature, except it is isolated or synthesized to produce the equivalent compound. In the US, nature identical is considered artificial. The term ‘nature identical’ is also no longer used in Europe, probably because some companies took the liberty of putting NATURAL all over the box, confusing customers.
Artificial flavors and those that need to be labeled as such in EU standards are compounds that do not exist in nature. There are regulations regarding which chemicals can be used, but FDA labeling requirements don’t differentiate between these types or nature equivalents.
But it’s important to note the following – many modern medicines are highly refined extracts from botanical sources, and if they were considered food nearly all would be artificial. Pond water is ‘natural’ and there is even someone selling ‘raw’ water (i.e. unfiltered) which is natural, but combining hydrogen and oxygen in a lab would be considered artificial.
Why would tea blenders use artificial flavors?
In reality, some types of natural flavors can get very expensive. And there have been instances where supply crunches cause the natural flavor to become unavailable. The other issue is that some natural flavors can dissipate quicker than some purer, manufactured versions. There is a quite large segment of the population that are casual or new tea drinkers. When a tea is labeled with a particular flavor, let’s say strawberry – then they are going to expect that tea to taste like strawberries. In other cases, a particular natural flavor may simply not be available that has the taste a blender is looking for, such as graham crackers. Sometimes, an artificial ‘nature equivalent’ flavor is used to complement a natural flavor – so a blender will use a combination of both, just like a beer brewer will use different types of hops for flavor and aroma.
What to do?
Chemicals exist all around us, both man-made and natural, and both can be toxic. So while the knee-jerk reaction is to shun ANYTHING with artificial flavors when it comes to tea, look at it this way – you can get a pure, nature identical flavor added to a tea or eat a conventionally grown strawberry which can theoretically have more contaminants. Some blenders (mainly mass market) may use artificial flavors to cover up poor quality tea, some of which can have more chemical residue from pollution or herbicide. Therefore, it’s worth scrutinizing the source if you plan on drinking a lot of a particular tea.
There are those that will lump in both natural flavors and artificial flavors as bad for you. For a new tea drinker, flavored tea is often an alluring reason to drink tea, especially if you are coming off coffee or a sugary soft drink. Virgin tea drinkers will often think plain tea tastes like water. But most tea, regardless if it’s flavored is a better option than more harmful drinks such as energy and soft drinks.
Dosing is always the main issue. The term natural doesn’t imply healthy. It is a balance between the health benefits and any potential side effects. There are some that shun flavoring in any way because ‘the doses are much higher than what is found in nature’. However, there is not a lot in the way of clinical evidence that avoiding these flavors helps you live longer. After all, the overall diet needs to be considered in totality. And one could argue there are a lot of toxins in nature that aren’t good for you – think poison mushrooms as one example.
In general, the loose tea market is very selective, and most blenders care a lot about what goes into the tea. The use of artificial flavors in general is very minimal and used only when there are no natural alternatives. Most blenders (in fact all that we spoke to) all use natural equivalents in any instance where a natural flavor is not used.