An important part of vaping are the flavors. There are more aspects than just the propaganda to ban them. There’s also biology, psychology, and chemistry. And there are some discussions about natural vs artificial flavors.
All those fancy flavors are just to lure “The Children”
This bovine excrement keeps hitting the media fans. With a little investigation and common sense, any journalist could debunk it. All surveys show that most long term vapers have a wide range of preferences. Including how important flavors are for them. I mention some of them in Beneficial Bias.
Or are all the varieties of flavored vodkas and condoms also just to lure “The Children”?
Let’s begin with some common knowledge. Our tongue can only discern a few basic tastes. The real tasting is done with the nose. Just that the smells enter it through the “backdoor”. That’s the major difference between tasting and smelling. We all know that. When we have a cold that clogs the nose, nothing smells or tastes right. Sometimes only part of the nose is affected and some things still smell and taste, but really strange.
What we call smell is the product of a lot of sensors reacting to the presence of certain molecules. Each sensor can only detect a few specific chemicals. We have hundreds of sensors. Which ones depends on the genetics. E.g. there are a number of specific sensors that react to cyanide (bitter almond). Many people can detect the slightest trace of this molecule, far below any toxic levels. Others simply can’t notice it. Similarly, the characteristic scent of truffles (the fungus). For some it’s delicious and others have no idea, what the fuzz is all about.
This also explains some part of the need for such a vast variety of different flavors. Why some liquids taste great for some while not for others. Everybody is different. This is especially true for the senses of taste and smell.
There is another aspect, called acquired taste. One meaning is that people—often as children—learn to associate some tastes and smells with pleasurable experiences, others with discomfort. So later, some scents trigger those emotions. It all depends on the individual life experiences. Very often people can’t even remember, why they like or dislike a specific scent or combination. This is the other part of why this plethora of flavors is necessary. With smell and taste, there is no “one size fits all”. A small selection of flavors will never be able to meet the preferences of a majority of people.
Flavors come in two basic varieties: Those that solve exclusive in oil and those that solve in water or other polar solvents. Since all our base liquids are polar (PG, VG, PEG400), we can only use the latter. If you have a flavor that is oil based, it won’t solve, as everybody knows: Oil and water don’t mix.
And the flavors need to be solved in the base, or they wouldn’t be vaporized as intended. Droplets of oil would clog the wick and coil as a nasty residue. Oils need much higher temperatures to vaporize than PG/VG. Temperatures at which PG/VG not only vaporize but also react chemically and form nasty stuff like Freaking Formaldehyde.
A lot of the flavors are “essential oils”. This historic term often is a misnomer. Their chemical properties can be totally different from the fatty oils, which are problematic. Many solve readily in the liquids and thus may be used for vaping.
Another important aspect is the temperature at which the flavor molecules get unstable and start to react chemically. We can only use those that are stable enough.
Natural vs artificial
I frequently read ads or vapers praising some liquid because it only contains natural flavors. But is that really the “holy grail” it sounds like? I have the impression that many people today embrace anything labeled “natural” or “bio” with the same enthusiastic faith and trust that cheered half a century ago anything artificially manufactured. We seem to be near the apex of the ideological counter swing. Both extremes tend to distort the view on facts. I try to avoid them both.
Natural flavors (“extracts”, “absolutes”) have the decided advantage that they can taste like “the real thing”. At least if all the major components of the flavor are able to solve in watery solutions. This will even taste natural for those people who are genetically missing the sensors for a major component, since they still get most of the other components they know.
The slight disadvantage is: For once the ANTZ are right, when they claim: “We don’t know what’s in them.” Extracts usually contain a lot of different molecules. The composition varies and may contain many that aren’t stable at higher temperatures. Just think about how the taste and smell of foods can change when you cook them. They may also contain substances that can be unhealthy. And if you don’t know what you must look for, you can’t even filter out those traces. But that’s a risk we usually accept, when we eat or drink, anyway. So, I see no need for panic. Just don’t fall for “it’s natural, it must be healthier”.
There is one group of absolutes that may be important for vaping. Especially for those who would like to switch completely, but simply can’t (->Diminishing Dependency). Whole tobacco alkaloids (WTA) might help here. They may provide just what is missing for them.
Artificial flavors on the other hand only consist of a limited number of molecules. They can be much easier tested and possible residues from the manufacturing process can be filtered. The big disadvantage is that they often taste … well … artificial.
Some flavors consist of just a few well known molecules. These can be replicated. But the vast majority is much harder to reproduce. Some molecules simply can’t be used, because they just won’t solve in vaping base. Others aren’t known or can’t be synthesized. For these, the “composer” must find substitutes that trigger the same sensors. Just like perfumers. And here lies the major problem. These substitutes might also trigger some other sensors and thus create an unpleasant or irritating side taste. For some people genetically missing some sensors, this might even just taste weird and nothing at all like what the label says. Different composers have—just like perfumers—their own favorite set of substitutes to work with. So, two attempts to create the same taste can work totally different for individual noses. What tastes “authentic” for one vaper might be repulsive for the next. So, don’t be disappointed when one liquid doesn’t taste right. Just try another manufacturer. They might have hit the right combination for you.
There can’t be a definitive answer to the question: “What is better?”
Both have their pros and cons. Everybody has to decide the answer on an individual basis. Including the possible choice of “I don’t care.”
For many vapers it is very important to have a wide variety of flavors to chose from. This is especially true for artificial flavors. Without the freedom to find the perfect match to the individual senses, it may be impossible for them to find in vaping a sensually superior alternative to smoking. Thus denying them the chance to experience the Pleasure Principle. Prohibitive “regulation” of flavors might also lead to the creation of the mythical “Gateway effect”.
Interesting viewing on the topic (in German) on 3sat/nano: (Unfortunately no longer available)
Nicotine Levels and Presence of Selected Tobacco-Derived Toxins in Tobacco Flavoured Electronic Cigarette Refill Liquids
The Association of E-cigarette Flavors With Satisfaction, Enjoyment, and Trying to Quit or Stay Abstinent From Smoking Among Regular Adult Vapers From Canada and the United States: Findings From the 2018 ITC Four Country Smoking and Vaping Survey
More on tobacco flavors, natural extracts (NET), and whole tobacco alkaloids (WTA):