Aromas and fragrances have been around as long as plants, animals and humans. It is part of our primal response to the chemistry of the world. From the first whiff of a rose, fresh cut grass or tracking an animal’s scent during a hunt, our chemical senses were set in motion.
For thousands of years, aromas have been of a purely natural and organic source. However, in the last century, we have evolved to where it is estimated that the population is exposed to less than 20% natural aromas, the rest being synthetic, not naturally occurring, or reconstructed. How did this happen, and why did the industry develop this way?
Plants, Essential Oils, Aroma Chemicals, Nature Identical Oils and Fragrances
When discussing aromas and fragrances, all of these items are vital to the evolution of what we perceive as scent, but what are they? What purposes or applications do they serve? From the natural, nature identical, to purely synthetic, the industry has evolved to find ways to chemically recreate ingredients to accommodate the global market necessity to have everything scented, while satisfying the “natural, organic, eco-friendly” markets that consumers continue to demand. All are in commercial use for various reasons, so let’s examine each and see how they developed.
Plant Material and Essential Oils
An essential oil could be described as a highly volatile liquid obtained from plants, including shrubs, grasses and trees, through the process of distillation. An essential oil can contain 50-100 or more naturally occurring aroma and medicinal chemicals. This forms its own synergistic mix as a vital and energetic representation of the plant.
To qualify as an essential oil, it should be distilled from 100% pure plant material collected from a single botanical source in a local geographical region. There should be no adulterations or “folding”. This means that nothing has been added or taken away to improve or enhance performance, aroma, improve safety, etc. Production of essential oils dates back to the 10th century for documented distillation, and even further with crude methods of chemical extraction which includes expeller pressing, concretes, and absolutes.
It can be quite easily argued that virtually all aromas, their evolution and development came from naturally occurring chemicals found in plants. Once science was able to extract a stable liquid which captured these aromatic and medicinal constituents, many things began to change. A veritable library of books have been written on the advancement of medicines, perfumes, food flavorings and other commercial products which developed from this process, not to mention the quantum leaps forward with organic chemistry.
Doctors, Aromatherapists, and other Natural Health Practitioners throughout the world, use these oils in their entirety to promote health, taking advantage of the positive effects of the natural aroma. They are used in many applications such as topical solutions, massage, inhalations, baths and compresses. Many of the medicinal components isolated from essential oils were either the inspiration for, or formed the basis and prototypes of many drugs on the market today.
Then there is the prevailing idea that a natural aroma is much more accepting to the primal sense of smell. Because of their complete and unique complex nature, it is also understood that essential oils are more biologically in tune with the human body, affording some healing benefits which still mystify modern science.
The downside of essential oils is they are expensive to produce and vary in aroma and consistency due to geographical location and weather, much like wines.
It is estimated that only about 5% of the market is currently, devoted to purchasers and users who require the pure unadulterated oil for applications. Unfortunately, this represents a relatively small market of consumers who demand and are willing to pay the higher price of distilled oils. According to the International Fragrance Association, the fragrance market accounts for nearly $10 Billion annually. Of that only about 1 /3 is the purchase of raw material like essential oils to create fragrances.
Enter the aroma chemicals. They are defined as any natural isolates or synthetics which have an aroma. The natural isolates are removed either mechanically (distillation) or chemically (hydrolysis) from a natural essential oil or plant material while synthetic are produced in a laboratory. One of the first recorded isolation and synthetic reproductions of a natural plant component was in 1874, when vanillin was successfully reproduced, followed by musk in 1888. Phenylethyl alcohol (from rose) followed in the 1930’s and citrals in the 1960’s. All naturally occurring molecules regardless of their source consist of carbons, hydrogen and oxygen, so, once identified, they can be synthetically reproduced.
Even though an essential oil may contain hundreds of chemical constituents, there are
usually, only 1-4 which will dictate its aromatic profile. These form the basis for aroma chemical production. To cite a few examples; the two main constituents of lavender which provide its well-known profile are linalool and linyl acetate. The aroma of jasmine depends on four components: benzyl acetate, linalool, indole, and cis-jasmone, while citrals and limonenes provide the universally recognized aroma of lemon. Vanillin gives us the familiar vanilla scent.
Considering that thousands of companies may want a lavender aroma but do not require the therapeutic effects of the whole oil, or do not want to pay the high price of a distilled oil, aroma chemicals nicely filled the void. As well, they are much more stable and stronger in aroma than the essential oil.
These previously mentioned aroma chemicals plus hundreds more are in heavy commercial use world-wide as isolated scents which are used to create a plethora of products spanning the cosmetic, chemical, pharmaceutical, and food industries.
Nature Identical Oils
With the production and evolution of aroma chemicals, it was now possible to create nature identical oils. The definition of “nature identical” is a substance that has been produced using aroma chemicals or molecules from either natural, synthetic sources or a combination of both, thus creating a chemical structure identical to that found in nature.
Returning to the example of jasmine; a pure jasmine absolute extracted from the flowers is labor intensive, with a small harvest window of just a few weeks per year. Add to this, limited crops and you have a very expensive substance to produce with high demand and low supply. The current world wide crop yield could not supply even a fraction of the demand. A litre of pure jasmine can cost well over $10,000. Its four main aromatic components can be reproduced in a laboratory for under $ 100.00 a litre.
Now, jasmine nature identical oil cannot possibly replace the pure synergistic composition of the real oil which contains 50+ natural components but it makes good economic sense for a company that only wants a jasmine aroma to choose nature identical. Labeling requirements can also be satisfied where natural or eco-friendly ingredients are expected or advertised.
Nature identical oils have emerged to satisfy the growing market which demands a natural component to fragrance without the high cost and instability of using pure essential oils or single aroma chemicals. The downside is that many of these nature identical oils are sold as pure essential oils in the marketplace by unscrupulous companies. Because nature identical oils are so inexpensive, they are sold at drastically less than market value as essential oils to unsuspecting consumers who think they are getting a great quality oil at a great deal. This, in turn, hurts ethical essential oil producers since they can’t compete.
Now, for the opposite of natural aromas and the most widely used substances for scenting throughout the world, we have fragrances. As previously mentioned, all naturally occurring molecules regardless of their source consist of carbons, hydrogen and oxygen, so, once identified, they can be synthetically reproduced.
The science of fragrance has taken many common molecules originally found in plants such as linalool, citral, and benzyl acetate and combined them to create new, unique and “signature aromas” as found in many high end perfumes, cosmetics, and even laundry detergents. Aromas meant to capture the essence of a “summer rain” or “sea breeze” for example, are created and aptly named (with a certain amount of imagination) since it is impossible to extract an aroma like that from nature. These new concoctions were never naturally occurring in any form and are quite complex so they must be synthetically reproduced.
This aids companies in their efforts to maintain a level of proprietary control over their product lines since the scents alone are a complex recipe and become a closely guarded secret. Thus, customization of scents has become a big part of product branding and identity. It is one of the main reasons why the fragrance industry has evolved to be such a world-wide financial giant, controlling many aspects of what we smell and the fact that just about every product out there now has an aroma.
In addition, this has led to synthetic reproduction of plant materials which are difficult or impossible to extract from natural sources such as apple, peach, mango, or banana, which are widely used in food flavouring and cosmetics. Unfortunately, most of these are synthetic as well.
Whether you agree or not, it is understandable as to why synthetic reproduction of aromas has dominated the market. They are inexpensive, easy to produce with consistent durable aroma and supply chains to accommodate the massive world-wide needs. It also eases the burden on plants, some of which have been exploited almost to extinction.
The debate will rage on as to what is better for consumers from economic, environmental, and health perspectives, but since all of these materials are available, a key question to ponder would be: Is it more important for the scent, be it perfume, fabric softener, or shampoo – to smell consistent, lasting, and sell at the lowest possible price, preserving the health of many plant species or choose a natural aroma with health benefits at a higher price?
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