The Real Tastemakers Behind Artificial Flavors
And why strawberry flavoring doesn’t really taste like strawberries
When I get a chance to take my time grocery shopping, I sometimes like to peruse the aisles and read through the ingredient lists of my favorite food brands. At the beginning of the list are the usual suspects—water, sugar, flour, oils, etc. However, every so often, I’ll find an obscure ingredient like lecithin or butylated hydroxyanisole that I have to look up. Over time, I’ve realized that no matter how many ingredients I know or don’t know in a product, the list almost always ends with the same inevitably cryptic words:
Natural Flavors, Artificial Flavors
The terms seem rather… vague. And for what it’s worth, they could refer to any number of more than 3,000 different chemicals, mixtures, and extracts — so the flavor world in itself could also be called vague. What do the terms “natural flavors” and “artificial flavors” actually mean? What’s in them? And who’s making them?
During the early and mid-20th century, when refrigeration was commercially developed and rolled out into modern homes, convenience became an important selling point for processed, ready-to-eat, and frozen foods. However, the methods used to preserve foods against microbial decay for long-term refrigeration and freezing resulted in the deterioration of flavor. The result? Many of these processed foods ended up tasting bland.
The rise of organic chemistry during the mid-1800s also led to new organic compounds that could be readily and cheaply produced. Many of these compounds made processed foods taste similar to how they’d taste in their original form (prior to heat processing). Over time, it became clear that mixtures of compounds, each at varying concentrations, could be used to both mimic and impart new flavors to foods, preserving their taste. Chemical instruments and methods for analyzing the composition of food flavors became increasingly sophisticated, allowing food technologists to reconstruct the flavor profile of foods with greater precision and accuracy.
A human intermediary is always needed to bridge the gap between chemical analysis and subjective taste.
However, despite advancements in analytical methodology, the human element remains invaluable in flavor design. For example, while only a small handful of signature compounds can be said to “taste” like strawberry, a real strawberry may contain hundreds of compounds that, together, create a unique depth of flavor. These smaller components may only be present at parts per million or billion. They may barely make a blip on a chromatograph, but their impact on our senses is disproportionately large.
While the most sophisticated gas chromatograph has limits of detection of 10 parts per billion, human noses have been reported to smell some aromas at around 0.000000001 parts per billion. For this reason, a human intermediary is always needed to bridge the gap between chemical analysis and subjective taste.
That is where a flavorist comes in.
Flavorists are technical professionals trained to design flavors using individual flavor components, extracts, oils, and synthetic compounds. With a wide spectrum of molecules and ingredients at their disposal, flavorists must use their olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) memory to synthesize a desired flavor for a product, much like a pianist brings together notes to play a song or a perfumer creates a new scent from a variety of fragrances.
In the United States, flavorists must undergo a seven-year apprenticeship under the tutelage of a senior flavorist to earn full certification from the Society of Flavor Chemists (SFC). An apprentice flavorist is accepted to an industry-approved flavorist training program after passing an initial test of organoleptic (senses) ability, which can involve differentiating levels of sweetness in various concentrations of sugar solutions or recognizing and remembering unlabeled flavors such as vanilla, peppermint, lemon, coffee, or banana.
To become a senior flavorist, someone must have between 10 to 15 years of direct experience.
During their first five years in the field, an apprentice flavorist repeatedly compounds flavors to achieve an intended result. For example, they may be given a coffee product and asked to match its flavor using available raw components. By diluting and combining different concentrations of ingredients, the apprentice can eventually mimic the product’s flavor. The apprentice will also catalog and describe several flavor ingredients each day to develop a written and mental library of their organoleptic properties.
After five years, an apprentice takes a written and oral examination demonstrating their knowledge of flavor components. If they pass with at least 80 percent, the apprentice becomes a junior flavorist and continues training for two years. Junior flavorists undergo an additional examination process, and they must pass with a minimum of 90 percent to attain certified membership into the Society of Flavor Chemists.
However, the work doesn’t stop there. To become a senior flavorist, someone must have between 10 to 15 years of direct experience working with flavors. With increasing experience, skill, and talent, flavorists can be honored with even higher professional titles, such as master flavorist or chief flavorist.
Due to the long training process, flavorists tend to remain in the taste-making industry for a while. They may work for a company (also known as a “flavor house”) that devotes a major portion of its commercial operations toward developing and selling flavors to other food companies. Or, they may find positions at food and pharmaceutical companies with internal research and development divisions devoted to flavoring.
Flavor houses compete for projects provided by the greater food industry. A food company may approach a number of flavor houses and describe the flavor profile they want for their product or give a physical example of a pre-existing product to mimic. The flavorist will work to match the client’s desires, but the challenge comes when there are subtle differences in a client’s perception of a flavor compared to a flavorist’s perception. A client might want a rich, dark chocolate that has hints of Mexican vanilla, which requires a flavorist to tweak their flavors closer to that description.
Cost is a major consideration in the construction of flavors, and it can compete with the flavorist’s desire for authenticity and creativity. They must also consider the availability of flavor ingredients, such as seasonality of flavor crops; use of natural, organic, or artificial ingredients; heat stability; process complexity; shelf-life; and product material properties. A client may also ask a flavor company to create a less costly mimic of a competitor’s product, which is a task of technical and analytical matching rather than creative originality.
While the work and training are long and arduous, flavorists have the satisfaction of seeing their work in products on grocery shelves and pharmaceutical counters.
Sometimes, a flavorist may create something that has no natural counterpart. Red Bull, for example, is cited as a postmodern medley of synthetic flavors that impart a unique, medicinal taste that people happen to desire when thirsty. That medicinal flavor has become strongly associated with the concept of “energy beverage.” Other energy drink companies have attempted to create a beverage that closely mimics a pre-existing natural flavor, but consumers always prefer the medicinal, synthetic flavor due to the close association.
Beyond the creation of new tastes, flavorists are tasked with the responsibility of continuously keeping up with regulations, ingredient availability, ingredient costs, culinary trends, and industry innovations. Some companies provide opportunities for flavorists to travel to culinary hot spots to gain inspiration for new flavor concepts. Givaudan sponsors a suite of corporate programs known as “Treks” that include off-site explorations to the world’s most exotic bars, Michelin-starred restaurants, authentic diners, and spice markets. Industry organizations also hold various study trips around the world for flavor professionals to learn more about innovative flavors and trends. The Women in Flavor and Fragrance Commerce regularly sponsors flavor excursions.
By holding memories of flavors, a flavorist builds up their toolbox as they continue to expand and deepen their palate.
Taste is universal, and a flavorist’s career is one of learning, creativity, innovation, and exploration. While the work and training are long and arduous, flavorists have the satisfaction of seeing their work in products on grocery shelves and pharmaceutical counters.
An experienced flavorist imparts some of their own signature into a flavor, adding nuances that tell a personal and professional story. Some flavorists claim they can tell who made a particular flavor by taste alone. As these tastemakers continue to redefine the flavor landscape of foods, they become progressively more responsible for translating, interpreting, and designing our everyday gusto-olfactory lexicon.
As a flavorist once remarked:
In 20 years… I’ll bet you that only five percent of the people will have tasted fresh strawberry, so whether we like it or not, we people in the flavor industry will really be defining what the next generation thinks is strawberry. And the same goes for a lot of other foods that will soon be out of the average consumer’s reach.