Many of the processed foods that we see on grocery shelves today bear an ingredient label that says “artificially flavored.” Due to the prevalence of artificial additives in the marketplace, one of the questions we are asked most frequently from savvy shoppers is: “Why did I see the word artificial in the ingredients of a Non-GMO Project Verified product?”
Similar to how the word “modified” does not mean genetically modified when referring to modified corn starch or similar products, “artificial” does not inherently mean an ingredient is GMO. “Artificial flavor” is a term used by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to classify flavorings not found in nature or derived from natural elements (plants or animals). Artificial flavors are produced through synthesis in a lab to mimic the taste and chemical makeup of a natural counterpart. They are often used to cut costs for food producers. While this production process can be achieved without any genetic engineering—no GMOs required—some producers do choose to use GMOs.
It’s important to recognize that while artificial does not inherently classify ingredients as a GMO, some artificial ingredients do come from GMOs—especially GMO microorganisms. Those are the types of artificial ingredients that are addressed in the Non-GMO Project Standard. The best way to avoid GMOs when you shop is to look for Non-GMO Project Verified products.
What Makes A Flavor
Flavors are added to food primarily for their taste rather than nutritional value. Think of strawberry jam—while the strawberries in the jam are flavorful, they wouldn’t be considered a flavor in that product. However, in a product like strawberry gum or toothpaste, strawberry would be considered a flavor because it is present solely for taste.
In the US, flavors are regulated by the FDA, which enforces the Food Additives and Amendment Act of 1958. Under this law, the FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of new food additives, including flavors, before they can be used in food products.
The FDA categorizes flavorings as either natural (e.g., vanilla bean extract, almond extract), artificial (e.g., synthesized vanillin, benzaldehyde), or spices (e.g., basil, cumin seed, or paprika). While artificial flavors are those not derived from natural elements, natural flavors are the processed and concentrated form of the plant or animal they came from. Spices are simply dried vegetables with no added flavoring. Ingredients traditionally regarded as foods, like onions, garlic, and celery, must be separately disclosed on a product’s ingredient list because they are not considered spices by the FDA.
Where We Come In
With thousands of flavoring substances in use today and varying methods used to produce them, it is impossible for consumers to tell if a product contains GMOs. That’s why the Non-GMO Project includes special provisions for evaluating microorganisms, including those used to produce artificial flavors, in our Standard. In many cases, this process goes all the way back to the growth medium the microorganism was grown on. Just like milk from a cow that's raised on GMOs can't be Non-GMO Project Verified, a microorganism can't eat GMOs and then produce Verified flavorings.
The next time you reach for that artificial vanilla flavor, Look for the Butterfly so you can be sure that product is non-GMO, right back to any microorganisms involved. Non-GMO Project Verified products are third-party tested and backed by our rigorous Standard to help take the guesswork out of shopping for you and your family.