Natural vs. Artificial E-Liquid Flavors
We’ve all heard it: “e-cigarettes just contain PG, VG, nicotine and flavorings – so what is there to worry about?” All available evidence may tell us that e-cigarettes are likely to be vastly safer than cigarettes, but the big problem with claiming just four ingredients is that last one, “flavorings.” This one word actually represents a multitude of different chemicals present in our e-liquid, both artificial and natural, and it also represents a genuine unknown when it comes to the health risks of vaping. So, should we be worried about the flavorings used in e-liquids? Is there any difference between the risks associated with artificial and natural flavors? What is e-juice flavoring made of? We need purpose-built research to really answer these questions, but what can we say based on what we know now?
What Do “Artificial” and “Natural” Mean When it Comes to Flavors?
First, we need to be clear about what qualifies as a natural flavor. The official definition according to the FDA reads:
“The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”
The upshot of this definition is that flavors which are derived from plants or animals are classed as natural flavors, and ones which aren’t (that don’t meet the above definition) are artificial flavors.
There’s an inclination to think natural flavors are automatically better for you, or that artificial flavors will contain potentially harmful synthetic chemicals. However, this inherent idea – and the whole concept of drastic distinction between artificial and natural flavors – becomes a little weaker under scrutiny.
The basic reason for this is simple: every flavor you’ve ever tasted was produced by a chemical. Varying arrangements of atomic elements produce the cornucopia of flavors we enjoy on a daily basis – ultimately, they’re all just molecules. To recreate a natural flavor artificially – say, the natural flavor of cinnamon, which comes from cinnamaldehyde – the exact same molecule is made in the lab (and if not, the result tastes different). The only difference is the source of that molecule, whether it’s synthetically produced from inedible ingredients or derived from a plant or animal source.
In practice, most flavored products – including e-liquids – are mixtures of several flavors, and this is true whether the ingredients are sourced artificially or naturally. The complex chemical composition of natural foodstuffs is recreated using similar-sized combinations of the key chemicals recreated artificially. This can be a benefit for artificial flavors – if there’s a nasty chemical in the natural substance, it can be omitted from the recreation – but it can also lead to artificial flavors losing some of the depth and nuance of the genuine article.
Flavors in E-Liquid: The Great Unknown
E-liquid flavorings are no different from food flavorings: some are naturally-sourced, but most are artificial recreations of the natural flavors. Many mixers offer precious little information about where their flavors come from and which flavorings are present, simply listing “natural and artificial flavors,” and pointing out that the flavorings are FDA-approved. This isn’t ideal for anybody wanting to be an informed consumer, but the truth is that it ultimately wouldn’t really make much of a difference anyway, because we don’t know the risks of many food-safe flavors when inhaled. The FDA says they’re “generally recognized as safe” for eating, but this description doesn’t cross over to inhalation.
This is why they’re often called “the great unknown” when it comes to e-cigarettes. The perfect example is offered by diacetyl, which is safe to eat (imparting a buttery flavor) but has been associated with declines in lung function in workers at a popcorn factory continuously exposed to diacetyl vapor. The resulting condition is called “popcorn lung disease,” and although it’s rare, it’s a clear indication that “safe to eat” doesn’t mean “safe to inhale.” When Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos tested e-liquids for the presence of diacetyl and found it being used by many mixers, it brought the risks to the attention of the community and many mixers have since stopped using it.
This all leaves flavorings as one of the few credible potential risks of vaping. However, there does still need to be some perspective: in the diacetyl study, it was calculated that the median daily exposure to diacetyl from the studied liquids were slightly lower than strictly-defined occupational exposure limits, and was 100 times lower than that from smoking. The same might not be true for other flavorings, but it is encouraging that for one of the few flavorings we do know could be dangerous when inhaled, vaping still represents a dramatic reduction in risk compared to smoking. And of course, if any potentially harmful flavorings (like diacetyl) are identified, e-liquid mixers can simply stop adding them.
How Safe Are E-Liquids and What Do We Know?
We might know a little about diacetyl’s risks for inhalation and its levels in e-liquid, but there is still a lot we don’t know. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) discusses the risks of diacetyl exposure, alongside other chemicals (which all responsible juice mixers don’t use) like acetoin and acetaldehyde, but hasn’t established “permissible exposure limits” for inhalation for most flavorings in use.
The Flavor and Extract Manufacturer’s Association (FEMA) is understandably concerned about the risks associated with inhalation of flavorings, and has created a list of “high priority” flavoring chemicals when it comes to inhalation hazards (which includes diacetyl and acetaldehyde), as well as a corresponding “low priority” list. However, FEMA points out that of more than 2,200 individual chemical flavorings and natural flavoring complexes in use, “The vast majority of these materials have chemical and physical characteristics that would make it highly unlikely that they would pose a risk of respiratory injury in the work-place.”
The high and low priority lists contain permissible exposure limits where they’ve been established, and can be used by mixers as a rough guide as to which flavors wouldn’t be wise to add to e-liquid. As we’ve made clear, though, there is a lot of uncertainty in this area, and recommendations are liable to change as we learn more.
Additionally, FEMA has specifically addressed e-cigarette flavorings, and argues that occupational exposure limits are not appropriate for determining the likely risks of vaping flavorings. There is a difference between being exposed to something in high concentrations in the air and directly inhaling it, but the key point is that flavorings (particularly individual ones) only make up a small portion of the vaporized e-liquid we inhale. You would assume that if concentrations in vapor are similar to those that somebody could breathe eight hours a day at work, it would basically apply to the flavoring exposure through vaping. There is no clarification on the reasoning behind this from FEMA, sadly.
There are some reasonably encouraging signs from clinical studies on the short-term effects of vaping. FEMA and OSHA both recommend that workers exposed to potentially harmful concentrations of flavorings have their lung functioning tested, and although the evidence of this nature on vapers is limited, the initial signs are fairly good.
While there have been some signs of irritation detected in studies, the core spirometry measures weren’t impacted by vaping (at least in the short term), whereas in the cases of diacetyl-induced issues with lung functioning, changes in these same measures were seen. Additionally, evidence (with an admittedly small sample size) from asthmatic smokers switching to vaping shows that their lung functioning improved after making the switch. However, we’ll stress again that much more evidence is needed on this, particularly over the long term.
So, what about the relative risks posed by artificial and natural flavors? In general, as the earlier discussion would indicate, there is little reason to expect a difference in risk. However, as FEMA notes in their document on respiratory health and flavorings, “No natural flavoring complexes (e.g. essential oils and extracts) have been associated with the type of respiratory illness seen in microwave popcorn workers.” They point out that some natural flavors (such as onion and garlic) are known to cause irritation when inhaled, but for most, their relatively low volatility makes inhalation risk fairly unlikely.
They also add that “flavor manufacturing activities that involve mixing and/or heating of natural flavoring complexes may result in significant opportunities for exposure and should be treated with appropriate caution.” This is relevant for Black Note, and a good sign, because the extraction process for our tobacco e-liquids doesn’t involve heating (which is why it’s called cold maceration), although the extract is obviously mixed with PG and VG. This may go some way to explaining the lack of toxic chemicals detected in the lab analysis of our e-liquids.
Should I Vape Natural or Artificial Flavors?
Despite the uncertainty – and the likelihood of similar risks overall – there are some clear advantages to natural flavorings, particularly because none have yet been identified as causes of respiratory illness when inhaled. In any case, though, the risk is likely to be much lower than that from smoking, so switching to vaping will represent a reduction in risk regardless of the specific flavors you vape.
One of the few reasonable precautions you can take is to choose e-liquids that don’t add unnecessary flavor and avoid using harmful chemicals in vape juice – we don’t use sweeteners, colors, artificial flavors or other additives for this reason. Every extra flavor is like another roll of the dice, so they should be minimized where possible.
The remaining deciding factor – and an important one – is the taste. As we mentioned earlier, artificial flavors tend to pick out key elements from a complex natural concoction to recreate the taste. This is all well and good for crude, fairly simplistic tastes like vanilla, but when it comes to tobacco, it’s why almost any tobacco e-liquid you care to try doesn’t capture the true taste. There are simply too many nuances and elements to the flavor of tobacco to recreate in the lab – at least without a formidable amount of research and a whole lot of trial and error. Naturally-extracted tobacco e-liquids taste so much better precisely because they’re based on the natural flavor rather than a limp, simplified synthetic replication. E-juice flavoring ingredients may spark controversy but ultimately the decision is yours to make.
Your choice of what to vape comes down to personal preference, but we’re firm believers that for many flavors – not just limited to tobacco– natural complexes are superior when it comes to taste. With all else being (reasonably) equal, that’s why we always choose natural over artificial.