If you haven't read Fast Food Nation, I'll go ahead and recommend it. You probably know what it's about, so I won't waste your time explaining!
In doing some research for the artificial vs. natural flavoring Masters of Social Gastronomy, I came across a pretty fun excerpt about what makes fast food so tasty:
A typical artificial strawberry flavor, like the kind found in a Burger King strawberry milk shake, contains the following ingredients: amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amyl ketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphenyl-2-butanone (10 percent solution in alcohol), a-ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, g-undecalactone, vanillin, and solvent
Holy damn! That's so many flavors you can't even count them all! Luckily for us I asked a computer to do it and voilà: artificial strawberry flavor has 49 ingredients.
I get the impression that we're supposed to be frightened of this. Who knows what could go wrong with all of those things! Death and destruction at the hands of science, and nothing less.
Sidenote, dear reader: this delicious gumbo recipe has 33 ingredients, and it hasn't killed me yet. Although "oregano" does sound a little less intimidating than "methyl salicylate" (even though the latter is just plain wintergreen oil).
Ok, so we get it. Artificial flavors are bad because they're so complicated and scary-sounding.
On the other side of the natural vs. artificial flavoring debate is the fact that natural flavors just taste better and have more nuance; artificial flavors just can't capture all of the magic little aspects of a vanilla bean or a ripe strawberry.
And what makes those little unobtainable bits of nuance? Chemicals. Natural chemicals, though, right?
Luckily for us, once again computers come to the rescue. Dr. Duke's Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases are hidden on the USDA's Agricultural Research Service's site, and at the click of a button you can see all of the chemical compounds that are in a strawberry. Here goes!
Alanine, alpha linolenic acid, alpha tocopherol, aluminum, arginine, arsenic, ascorbic acid, ash, aspartic acid, beta carotene, beta sitosterol, boron, bromine, cadmium, caffeic acid, calcium, campesterol, carbohydrates, catechin, catechol, chlorogenic acid, chromium, citric acid, cobalt, copper, cystine, ellagic acid, fat, fiber, fluorine, folacin, gallic acid, gallocatechin, gentisic acid, glutamic acid, glycine, histidine, iron, isoleucine, kaempferol 3 beta monoglucoside, kaempferol-7-monoglucoside, kilocalories, lecithin, leucine, linoleic acid, lutein, lysine, magnesium, malic acid, malvidin-3,5-diglucoside, manganese, mercury, methionine, molybdenum, mufa, neo-chlorogenic acid, niacin, nickel, nitrogen, oleic acid, p-coumaric acid, p-hydroxy benzoic acid, palmitic acid, palmitoleic acid, pantothenic acid, pectin, pelargonidin 3 glucoside, pelargonidin 3 monoglucoside, phosphorus, phylloquinone, phytate, phytosterols, proline, protein, protocatechuic acid, pufa, quercetin-3-beta-glucuronide, quercetin-3-beta monoglucoside, riboflavin, rubidium, salicylates, salicylic acid, selenium, serine, SFA, silicon, sodium, stearic acid, stigmasterol, sulfur, thiamin, threonine, tryptophan, valine, vanillic acid, vitamin B6, water, zinc
Plane-jane sun-ripened all-natural strawberries contain at least 98 chemical compounds. That's where your nuance comes from, not from the mystic aura of the Plant Kingdom. It even includes arsenic and the terrifying-soundind quercetin-3-beta-glucuronide, to boot! The artificial laboratorified version only brought us half of the way there, what scoundrels.
I've read that 350 is a more appropriate level for strawberry flavor compounds, but we aren't here to split hairs. Either way, a big long list of compounds shouldn't be enough to intimidate the Science out of you. Whether it's 49, 98 or 350, a long ingredient list doesn't mean a thing.
And now, with that fearmongering dispelled, I think it's time for a frozen methyl cinnamate dairy product!