Artificial Foods

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ARTIFICIAL FOODS. The term "artificial" refers to something produced to imitate nature. Some artificial foods created with rubber or similar materials are incredibly lifelike. People have even placed them on a table when they are away to fool robbers into believing someone is home and ready to eat. These food models are more commonly used in educational settings to help people understand reasonable portion sizes. They are also used in displays, such as restaurant windows, as food spoilage is not an issue. A computer search using the term "artificial food" will locate retail vendors of these food models.

Edible Food

The term "artificial food" also creates images of edible food made from substances that do not occur naturally. No wholly artificial foods exist in the strict sense, but some foods are called artificial or seem artificial to some people. Viewing a food as artificial is most likely if it contains ingredients, such as colorings or flavorings, that are not inherent in the food. An example is artificial strawberry flavoring created in the laboratory to mimic the natural taste of fresh strawberries.

Foods may also be "artificial" for medical reasons or to suit personal beliefs. For example, artificial milk is created for infants born with a genetic disease called phenylketonuria (PKU). The artificial milk replicates the nutritional content of real milk but lacks a specific amino acid, phenylalanine, not tolerated by an infant with PKU. Without this artificial milk, infants with PKU would develop severe mental retardation.

Vegetarian food substitutes, such as imitation bologna, may be viewed as "artificial" by some because they imitate nature. They may look and taste similar to a meat product, yet they contain no meat. Others argue that the term "artificial food" may not apply here, as many vegetarian meat substitutes contain only all-natural ingredients. Most would conclude that the consumer definition of artificial food relates more to the presence of any artificial ingredient, such as nutrients, artificial coloring, or artificial flavoring, that possesses ingredients or attributes that simulate another food.

Sometimes artificial ingredients are added to provide a nutrient that would be in the food in its natural state. For example, orange juice has vitamin C, so Tang® Drink Mix is fortified to contain at least 100 percent of the daily value for vitamin C (see sidebar on Tang®). Sometimes ingredients are added but not to the same level the natural product would contain. For example, potassium is added to Tang®, primarily in the form of potassium citrate. A small amount of potassium is contributed by orange juice solids and other ingredients. The body uses the potassium in Tang® from potassium citrate just as it would use the naturally occurring potassium in foods and beverages. The quantity, though, is different from that of natural orange juice. The potassium content of Tang®

Drink Mix is 50 milligrams per 8 fluid ounces. Orange juice contains approximately 470 milligrams per 8 fluid ounces.

Foods Containing Artificial Flavor or Color

The consumer looks for the term "artificial" on food labels to distinguish between foods that are in their natural states and those that have been modified in some way. On the label the term "artificial" is applied to flavor or color as defined by the federal government. For example, this is the federal definition of artificial flavor:

The term artificial flavor or artificial flavoring means any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof. Artificial flavor includes the substances listed in Secs. 172.515(b) and 182.60 of this chapter except where these are derived from natural sources (Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, vol. 2, 2001, pp. 7378).

In simpler terms, for the purposes of nutrition labeling, artificial flavor means anything added to food for flavor that is not taken directly from whole foods.

The federal definition of artificial color or artificial coloring means any "color additive'' as defined in Sec. 70.3(f) of the food code. Some food colors obtained largely from mineral, plant, or animal sources may be listed on the label with the general term "artificial color." Regulations require certification of colors derived primarily from petroleum, known as coal-tar dyes. Some color additives must be listed by name on the label. These are additives that are safe for most people but have been identified as a problem for a small number of consumers. For example, FD&C Yellow No. 5, listed as tartrazine on medicine labels, must be individually labeled because it causes hives and itching in a small proportion of consumers.

Though reactions to color additives are rare, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to know about them. The agency operates the Adverse Reaction Monitoring System (ARMS) to collect and act on complaints concerning all food ingredients, including color additives. Consumers can register complaints by contacting the FDA district offices in their local phone directories or by sending written reports to the ARMS at the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, D.C.

Determining if Food Has Artificial Flavor or Color

Artificial ingredients in the food supply are generally considered safe for individuals without specialized medical conditions such as specific food allergies. Some consumers prefer to avoid foods deemed artificial anyway, as a precaution that fits with their own beliefs. Thus nutrition labeling assists these consumers in following their personal preferences.

Grocery stores usually have mechanisms that allow consumers to decide if they want to purchase the food. For example, if a strawberry shortcake contains flavoring from strawberries enhanced by artificial flavor, the box will be labeled "natural and artificial strawberry flavor." If the food contains solely artificial flavors, it will be labeled "artificial strawberry flavor."

Foods packaged in bulk containers for retail stores may not contain a nutrition label. The labeling information for the food, however, should be displayed plainly in view or on a counter sign. Restaurant food is more challenging, as restaurants are not required to provide nutrition labeling.

See also Additives; Allergies; Coloring, Food; Fads in Food.

Irene Berman-Levine


Tang®, a powdered orange drink meant to mimic orange juice, was introduced in 1957 and went into national distribution in 1959. It rose in popularity in 1965, when it became part of the diets of the astronauts in the space program. Tang® has been on every manned space flight since Gemini 4, including Apollo flights, Sky Lab, and the space shuttles. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) chose it because of its compact nature as a powder, its convenience, its storage qualities, and its required nutrients, such as vitamins A and C.

Tang® obviously appealed to kids who wanted what astronauts were eating, and hundreds of other powdered beverages followed. Sugar-free Tang became available in March 1985, driven by consumer demand for sugar-free low-calorie beverages.

The popularity of the powdered orange juice substitute gradually dwindled as the convenience of fresh orange juice at a reasonable price rose. For a brief time in the 1990s the popularity of Tang® increased with "Generation X" due to a "Tang and Toast" advertising campaign. Tang® is popular when a convenient dried food is required, such as on camping trips and in the military. It is usually carried by suppliers of dried and dehydrated foods for long-term food storage or specialty grocery stores with a nostalgic supply. The original purpose of Tang® as a convenient, inexpensive powdered drink has been forgotten. After 1999 it was available in pouches, ready to drink, in flavors such as Fruit Frenzy and Orange Uproar.

Rumors abound that some consumers have used Tang® Drink Mix to clean their dishwashers. Tang® does contain citric acid, which can act as cleaning agent. Kraft Foods has taken the position that Tang® Drink Mix is intended to be a food product, and the company does not advocate its use for any other purpose.