Hurling Strawberries — Flavors are more than the sum of their parts

Deep inside the olfactory heart of a strawberry there’s a secret ingredient: vomit. Strawberries, along with many other fruits and foods, have some more unsavory flavor notes as part of their smelly symphony. It may be only subtly there, but a strawberry just isn’t a strawberry without it.

Butyric acid forms naturally from the breakdown of fatty acids that are naturally in foods. It also tastes like puke, so be careful with it.

Flavor is a complex landscape. How we taste foods is a gnarly mish-mash of smells entering our nose from the front and back along with taste and touch receptors on our tongues and all over our mouths. Flavors get released as we chew foods but we form our first impressions of taste before we even part our lips. Scent is a powerful contributor to our perceptions of foods and we smell not just when we put foods up to our noses but also as we chew and odor chemicals enter our nose from behind, a process called “retro-nasal olfaction”.

Retronasal olfaction is how we smell foods while they’re still in our mouths. It’s important because smell forms an impression of foods even while we’re tasting them directly. It also means you can still smell when you have a cold, it’s just a bit more complicated. (Image source: monell.org)

Flavors and smells have their own math. They add and subtract, just not in any logical, mathematical, or coherently predictable way. Flavor chemists often break smells and flavors down into ‘notes’ which they combine to build complex flavors like ‘strawberries’. And often a flavor is much more than the sum of its parts. Strawberries and many other flavors contain an important but unsettling flavor note: vomit. Butyric acid is responsible for the smell of vomit but it’s also a key to many complex flavors from strawberries to parmesan cheese. Context plays a role too. Interestingly, people can’t always tell the difference between parmesan cheese and puke, particularly if they can’t see which it is they’re smelling. If you’re curious just how many flavors contain vomit, here’s a helpful list:

This is only for one flavor company but here’s a list of their flavors that contain butyric acid (vomit flavor) as an ingredient. (From https://shop.perfumersapprentice.com/specsheetlist.aspx?cas=107-92-6)

So what’s the difference between a natural and artificial flavor? Well the answer might just be vomit. With flavors, often a single note or molecule is most prominent and gives the flavor its main character. Vanilla is a prime example. Vanilla’s key flavor comes from the appropriately named: “vanillin”. But vanillin alone doesn’t tell the whole story. The bean goes deeper. A true vanilla flavor is made up of hundreds of background notes that together build the complexity of a true vanilla bean. Natural vanilla extract contains all those notes, an artificial vanilla extract just contains vanillin and maybe a few other notes. Depending on the type of flavor and the type of food, a natural or an artificial flavor may be the right choice.

Here’s a strawberry for your consideration.

A lot goes in to making a strawberry. (Image source: https://jameskennedymonash.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/ingredients-of-an-all-natural-strawberry-english.jpg)
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