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Knowledge Base » Food Hygiene » What is Flavour?

What is Flavour?

Last updated on 4th May 2023

We all have our differences and preferences when it comes to flavour. According to Statista, when it comes to flavours of crisps in the UK, preferences vary dramatically based on a person’s age. Almost half of the over 60s preferred ready salted, those in the age bracket down preferred cheese and onion (40%), the 25- to 39-year-olds preferred salt and vinegar, and the youngest age bracket had an eclectic mix of preferences!

This interesting set of results perhaps highlights the change in the availability or creation of different flavours of crisps throughout the last few decades. However, it is perhaps considered a bit of a leap to suggest that, as we age, our perception of flavour changes. It’s perhaps more likely to relate to familiarity and flavour trends. Let’s take a closer look at flavour.

What is flavour?

When we talk about food, first and foremost we think about its flavour. Flavour is by and large the most important factor to consider when choosing food from a menu or preparing it yourself at home. Of course, appearances and presentation do matter. But if it looks amazing yet tastes of cardboard, you’ve got a bit of a problem.

We know that flavour is a subjective concept (as the crisp flavour preferences above highlight). Flavour isn’t just about enjoying a meal. It’s about an experience. Flavour can take you right back to your granny’s kitchen or that time you went backpacking around Thailand.

Whilst flavour and taste are irrevocably connected, taste is much more objective in that there are essentially five basic human tastes. However, flavour is limitless. Flavour is more about a chemical make-up of a foodstuff, and it involves more than one of the senses: how a food smells, tastes, and the touch of it in the mouth.

When considering what makes a flavour, we need to consider the three chemical senses, two of which are smell and taste. There are also the “trigeminal senses” that detect irritants in the throat and the mouth, and these can also contribute to the perception of flavour.

Flavour, therefore, is effectively a combination of smell and taste as well as a personal experience that involves memory. Whereas describing a taste is quite simple, describing a flavour needs much more articulation. With flavour, you can describe foods in much more descriptive and evocative words. From a greasy kebab after a night on the tiles to a juicy watermelon on a hot summer’s day. Just reading descriptions of flavours can make us salivate.


What are the different types of flavour?

Whilst flavour is subjective, as mentioned, to a certain extent we can also classify it into three categories:

  • Natural Flavours.
  • Artificial Flavours.
  • Herbs and Spices.

It is these three groups that make up the food and drink that we consume. Combining them allows us to create different mixes and new flavours all the time.

Natural Flavours

Natural flavourings are ingredients that have been derived from plants that are then processed. They include yeasts, proteins and essential oils.

They are considered to be natural flavours if they meet these criteria:

  • Found in nature.
  • Extracted from nature.
  • Extracted using natural processes.

These flavours are often processed physically as well as on a microbiological or enzymatic level. Extraction, fermentation and distillation are common methods of producing natural flavours.

After their derivation and processing, they can be classed as ‘Generally Recognised As Safe’, or a GRAS ingredient, or a ‘food additive’ depending on their composition. Natural flavours include things like citrus fruits (lemon, lime, orange) as well as plant extracts such as vanilla, rose and lavender.

Having said this, some flavours are labelled as ‘natural’ without really being the true natural flavour. Some flavours are labelled as such because they come from natural sources but are not necessarily the flavour as it’s found in nature. Take the example of vanilla. A natural vanilla flavour can actually be extracted from cow pats… Nice!

Artificial Flavours

Artificial flavours (sometimes called flavourants or flavourings) work by changing or enhancing a natural food’s flavour or by creating a new flavour for something that doesn’t have the natural taste you’d expect. Most flavourings work on both taste and scent.

As such, artificial flavours are chemically created compounds that are used to give food items a flavour. They are often created with the same chemical compositions that are found in natural flavourings. Most of them are specific mixtures that give a particular flavour. Chemists can often mix together different artificial flavours to create new flavours or recreate common flavours.

The human brain is actually quite easy to trick when it comes to flavour. With just the right combination of chemicals, a juice drink can convince you that it’s made with real strawberries when really it had just the right mix of chemicals. When you think about it, it’s not that strange. At the end of the day, the brain is sensing a chemical and it doesn’t really care if it’s from a real fruit or from a lab.

Let’s take a look at some common chemical compounds that are used in flavourings and the flavours that they produce.

Chemical Compound Scent/Flavour
Limonene Orange
Diacetyl Butter
Cinnamic aldehyde Cinnamon
Isoamyl acetate Banana
Ethyl vanillin Vanilla

The chemical compounds described above are nearly identical to the naturally occurring compounds that give the same flavours. However, ethyl vanillin, for example, is 3.5 times stronger than natural vanilla and is cheaper too. This is why artificial vanilla flavouring is used in products such as ice cream and chocolate.

Combining these compounds can give different effects too. Combining methyl alcohol and cinnamic acid to form methyl cinnamate gives a flavour of strawberries, whereas combining butyric acid and butyl acid will give a scent of pineapples.

There is often the thought that artificial flavours are not quite as safe to consume as naturally occurring ones. However, in reality, many consider artificial flavours to be safer in comparison to natural flavours because of the consistency and purification needed to produce them either dictated by the food producers or by the law. Most artificial flavours are considered to be food additives, but some are classified as GRAS ingredients. The artificial flavourings that are usually recognised as GRAS ingredients include common flavours such as cinnamon, vanilla and strawberry, for example.

In contrast, some natural flavours may contain some level of toxins from their natural source as they are not as purely derived. As a result, you’ll find that natural flavourings often undergo more rigorous testing before they’re allowed to be on the market.

Herbs and Spices

Generally, spices are aromatic plants or vegetables that are found in different forms. They can be whole, broken, dried or ground. Herbs and spices are common additions in any kitchen, home or commercial, and include things like thyme, rosemary, pepper, cumin and ginger. Herbs and spices are usually considered to be GRAS ingredients.


Why is flavour important?

Without flavour, people would likely not enjoy or want to consume food and drink. Indeed, those who have experienced a loss of their sense of taste or smell following COVID-19 infection often lose weight as their desire to eat drops given the lack of flavour. As such, we can consider flavour to be of utmost importance for us to be able to maintain our health.

Flavour also drives trends in new products, particularly confectionery trends. Without good flavour, food and drink products wouldn’t be able to survive a saturated market. Artificial flavours particularly are a keen part of how we can enjoy a seasonal flavour all year round without needing to import out-of-season fruits into the UK.

For those setting up a food-related business, they must have the knowledge of what flavours and tastes their target market enjoys. To give a simple example, if you’re a café owner where the footfall is mostly the over 60s, after reading the statistics above, you should make sure you offer ready salted crisps next to your sandwiches rather than more exotic flavours since it is likely the key preference found for this age group!

Likewise, a bright and whimsically designed café can only draw in your customers to a certain extent. If what you serve them doesn’t have the flavour that they like, they’re not going to come back or recommend you to their friends.

What are flavour profiles?

A flavour profile is where a combination of flavour elements is used within a particular food product or dish. It’s also used to refer to a set of common seasonings, herbs and spices that are used in certain cuisines. Flavour profiles help us to emulate flavours from all over the world as well as allow us to create food that is more complex, not to mention delicious.

Flavour profiles from around the world

Many of us associate certain flavour combinations with a geographical location or a type of cuisine. For example, Mediterranean countries often use flavour combinations that include herbs such as oregano, basil and lemon. In this way, flavour profiles can help us define cultural or ethnic flavours that are usually found in particular places. These profiles can help cooks to understand how different flavours pair together.

Some generalised examples of natural flavour profiles include:

  • Mexican Cuisine: chilli, tomato, avocado, black beans, pepper, corn, coriander leaf and lime.
  • Indian Cuisine: cinnamon, ginger, garlic, cumin, lentils, turmeric, fenugreek and nutmeg.
  • Mediterranean Cuisine: oregano, parsley, basil, dill, rosemary, mint, cucumber, lemon, dill and coriander.
  • Southeast Asian Cuisine: fish sauce, lemongrass, ginger, five-spice (clove, white pepper, liquorice, fennel, Sichuan pepper) and coconut milk.

Flavour pairings

Some flavour pairings are just so perfect together that they’re almost like soul mates!

Popular traditional flavour pairings in the UK include:

  • Roast lamb and mint sauce.
  • Roast beef and horseradish.
  • Pork and apple sauce.
  • Pie and peas.
  • Cheese and pineapple sticks (a bit of a 1970’s tradition, but still popular!).
  • Egg and cress in a sandwich.
  • Bacon and eggs.
  • Ham and pineapple on a pizza.

Other flavour pairings that are popular around the world include:

  • Peanut butter and jelly (jam to us Brits).
  • Strawberries and chocolate.
  • Strawberries and cream.
  • Ham and cheese.
  • Spaghetti and meatballs.
  • Cinnamon and apple.
  • Chocolate and mint.
  • Salmon and cream cheese.
  • Coconut and lime.
  • Cookies and cream.
Salmon and cream cheese

How are flavours created?

When creating flavours, you are essentially combining different chemical compounds. In fact, research shows that there are around 10,000 compounds that have been found in foods. Someone who creates flavours as their job is called a ‘flavourist’. Given that this role is complex, flavourists are scientists who understand the chemical nature of their role but who also have the creativity needed to develop different flavours.

When creating flavours there are lots of factors to consider, one of which is the regulations including non-GMO foods, halal, kosher, organic and natural foods. As mentioned above, there are different methods of producing flavours.

Natural flavours are created using physical or microbiological methods including fermentation, distillation and extraction. Artificial flavours are created in laboratories.

Flavour formats

Flavours come in different types or formats that can be added to food. Some of these flavours are used in baking and cooking as well as when creating products such as juices, yoghurts and other manufactured products.

Flavours come in liquids and powders. Most of us are familiar with a little bottle of vanilla extract, orange extract or peppermint extract that we might use in baking. However, labs also create more complex and more nuanced flavours for manufactured products such as the compounds listed above.

In Europe, artificial flavours are classed as food additives, and they must be approved for use. This is governed by Regulation (EC) No. 1334/2008 in Europe.

What are flavour trends?

Flavour trends are like any other kind of trend. A particular flavour will gain in popularity and will then be created in a variety of formats to meet the desires of those enjoying it.

For example, in the past decade, salted caramel flavour has passed through American consciousness and then become a globalised flavour phenomenon. You can now get salted caramel chocolate, salted caramel ice cream, salted caramel cookies and doughnuts, cheesecakes and cakes. It’s managing to maintain its popularity too.

In 2021, ‘barbecue’ saw a little resurgence as a popular flavour for meats, snacks, seasons, marinades and sauces. Cooking with fire increased in popularity, which is said to have contributed to this effect.

In 2022, watermelon flavour saw a big growth of over 40% in a year making it one of the fastest-growing fruit flavours out there. Fruity flavours also left darker brown flavours such as toffee and fudge lagging behind.

Another recent popular flavour trend is one of nostalgia – taking people back in time. For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic allowed them to reflect on perceived simpler times with many opting to get out the old family recipe books. Mood-busting flavours such as chocolate, baked goods and meaty tastes are back in demand. Primarily, it’s a trend about indulgence and evoking childhood memories with warming foods that give positive, comforting feelings.

Final thoughts

Whether you’re into your salted caramel or prefer granny’s homemade macaroni cheese, flavour preferences are certainly individual. Flavour and taste combine to create things in us in a way that other things can’t. You can be taken back in time to a bygone era or get excited as the latest trending flavour which is to die for. Understanding what flavour is can only help us further in both enjoying it and creating things in the kitchen!

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About the author

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Laura Allan

Laura is a former Modern Foreign Languages teacher who now works as a writer and translator. She is also acting Chair of Governors at her children’s primary school. Outside of work, Laura enjoys running and performing in amateur productions.

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