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  • Writer's picturePaulina S. Gennermann

Bridging the gap between chemistry and society: natural and artificial from a history of flavour’s perspective

Flavours and fragrances have a strong impact on our culture, on our behaviour, and on our physiology. They guide us through our gustatory and olfactory experiences of our lives and of the world. Christmas is often connected to the taste and smell of cinnamon and oranges, while summer might taste like strawberries, lemons, or coconut. To provide the tasteful experiences, a whole industry was formed around the production of various flavours. During my PhD, I analysed the nature of synthetic flavouring agents, with a special emphasis on vanillin, the key component of vanilla, firstly synthesised in the late 19th century by Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann. Studying these chemical substances that are omnipresent in our daily lives and routines can help us understand the industry producing them and their effects on us.

In this blog post, I would like to think about the contributions of the history of chemistry to historical research of science, industry, and society and ongoing debates about natural and non-natural substances of the 21st century from a history of chemistry perspective. This controversy is not a new one, but it is still important today in discussions about regulation, health, and consumer preferences, while consumers and industry have a different opinion about the approach and definition of what is natural and what is not. My main argument is that history of chemistry can be a suitable tool to bridge the often perceived gap between chemistry, chemical industry, and society.

A bowl of vanillin crystals with two vanilla pods and a flower
credit – Professor Toshiki Furuya, Department of Applied Biological Science, Faculty of Science and Technology, Tokyo University of Science

Food flavours provide an excellent case study for the question of naturalness. They are ideal objects of inquiry for an analysis of the perception, the understanding, and the development of the terms ‘natural’, ‘synthetic’, ‘artificial’, and ‘chemical’. These terms were and are continued to be used in the 20th and 21st century, but they have very different and various meanings, depending on the context. Everyone using these terms may have his or her personal understanding. Studying the past may clarify today’s understandings and usages, and may help explain potential misunderstandings or difficulties.

According to the flavours and fragrance industry, ‘natural’ flavours were occurring in nature and were directly obtained from nature by extraction or distillation. ‘Synthetic’ flavours were produced by chemical synthesis, but their chemical structures are also found in nature. They are identical in their chemical structure to the natural ones, but the production process and the raw materials are different. And there are ‘artificial’ flavours which are produced by chemical synthesis and are not known to occur in nature. These definitions are built upon chemical knowledge, namely upon the knowledge about chemical structures and production methods. They are the principal characteristics according to which ‘natural’, ‘synthetic’, and ‘artificial’ flavours are separated. In the second half of the 20th century, European and German flavour regulation began to use this differentiation in official guidelines.

However, while chemists and chemical industry put synthetic and natural flavours close to each other and understood artificial flavours as something more particular – due to their structural approach – consumers generally had a totally different perception! For them, the category ‘natural’ was something special and of high value, while ‘synthetic’ and ‘artificial’ were both closely linked to chemical industry and to something non-natural. In other words, the perspectives of consumers and industry were the exact opposite. This phenomenon induced some misunderstandings, difficulties regarding the perception of food ingredients and the regulation of flavours, and alienation or even mistrust. History of chemistry might offer a bridge between the different perspectives. By analysing the development of the terms and by studying the different points of view, history of chemistry helps to explain the differences, to decipher (not to solve!) misunderstandings, prejudices, and critiques of the past and present.

During the 1960s and until the 1980s, in the context of ongoing flavour regulation in Germany and the European Community, the definition of different flavour types was debated. As already mentioned, the three-fold classification into ‘natural’, ‘synthetic’, and ‘artificial’ flavouring agents was established. The term ‘synthetic’, however, was intensely discussed. From the industry’s perspective, the term ‘synthetic’ was too closely linked to the negative stigma of ‘chemical’ and therefore undesirable for marketing reasons. Following the chemical understanding of ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’ molecules, the industry wished to circumvent the negative stigma of synthetic flavours and to highlight their proximity to natural ones. In the German Flavour Decree of 1981, the three-fold system was introduced and for the declaration on food packages, the term ‘synthetic’ was replaced by ‘nature-identical’. ‘Nature-identical’ made it possible to underline the structural sameness without equalising natural and synthetic flavours totally, and the industry was allowed to use the positive keyword ‘nature’. It was a compromise between product transparency and product attractiveness while the advantage was on the side of the industry, as they could induce an impression of naturalness of ‘synthetic’, a term that was interpreted differently by consumers and industry.  

In the 21st century, the legal terms of flavours in Germany changed. ‘Artificial’ and ‘nature-identical’ flavours do not exist anymore. Both are now merged under the term ‘flavour’. Interestingly, there are now two types of natural flavours: ‘natural flavour’ and ‘natural x-flavour’. Both types stand for specific production methods and for the organic origin of the raw materials. In contrast to the first, the latter concretise the raw materials: ‘natural x-flavour’ signifies a flavour with the taste x which was produced using at least 95% of x. In other words: ‘strawberry flavour’ means that this flavour was produced out of 95% of strawberries. Both flavour types are called ‘natural’, nevertheless, they are two sorts of ‘natural’.

In this area of research – be it the history of food or flavours and fragrances – it is important not to be guided by personal opinions, preferences, and perceptions. I say that because working on terms like ‘natural’ and ‘chemical’, there are ongoing discussions, and everyone is in a certain way personally involved. The researcher needs to concentrate on studying the topic equally from the different perspectives to show entanglements and interrelations from all the sides. And this means not only to examine the responsibilities of industry or politics but also of consumers or society in general. All perspectives, duties, and positions must be analysed and critically reflected. In any case, there won’t be a straightforward or clear-cut answer, but the presentation of a complex network. History of chemistry enables us – in cooperation with other historical studies – to bridge big gaps between chemistry, industry and society. 


**This blog post is based on my contribution to the Conversations on the history of chemistry Roundtable 3: Food, toxicity, and the life sciences (15.06.2023) and on my publication: Paulina S. Gennermann, Eine Geschichte mit Geschmack–die Natur synthetischer Aromastoffe im 20. Jahrhundert am Beispiel Vanillin (Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2023).


Further readings on the history of flavours and fragrances

  • Barwich, Ann-Sophie, Smellosophy: What the Nose tells the Mind (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2020).

  • Berenstein, Nadia, „Designing Flavors for Mass Consumption“, The Senses and Society 13 (1), 2018: 19–40.

  • Berenstein, Nadia, „Making a Global Sensation: Vanilla Flavor, Synthetic Chemistry, and the Meanings of Purity“, History of Science 54 (4), 2016: 399–424.

  • Eugénie Briot, La Fabrique des Parfums: Naissance d’une Industrie de luxe (Paris: Vendémiaire, 2015).

  • Burr, Chandler, The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2004).

  • Gennermann, Paulina S., Eine Geschichte mit Geschmack: die Natur Synthetischer Aromastoffe im 20. Jahrhundert am Beispiel Vanillin (Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2023).

  • Gennermann, Paulina S, „Becoming Natural: The Naturalization of Synthetic Flavors in the Twentieth Century and the Introduction of Konsumstoff“, Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 46 (4), 2023: 303–19.

  • Ulloa, Ana María. „The Aesthetic Life of Artificial Flavors“, The Senses and Society 13 (1), 2018: 60–74.

  • Zwanenberg, Patrick van, and Erik Millstone, „Taste and Power: The Flavouring Industry and Flavour Additive Regulation“, Science as Culture 24 (2), 2015: 129–56.

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