My obsession with mystery flavors started in the summer of 2014.
I was at a 7-Eleven — buying Blistex and Alka-Seltzer, probably — when a silver-foil package of DORITOS® JACKED™: Test Flavor 2653 caught my eye. “Be a Bold Taste Tester and you could get paid in gold!” blared the label. I had little interest in adding to my hoard of precious metals, but I had just begun researching the history of synthetic flavors in grad school, and this seemed like primary source material. Needless to say, I bought the Doritos.
I proceeded to forget all about them until a friend visiting from out of town unearthed the bag in the back of some little-used cabinet. I walked into the kitchen one morning to find her with the Doritos at arm’s length, holding the bag by one corner as if to minimize contact. The look on her face was disapproving and a little bit shocked, as though she had found some intimate personal device or discovered an embarrassing secret about me. “You’re a grown-ass woman,” her widening eyes seemed to say. “What are you doing with this nonsense?”
Ordinary Doritos would have been understandable; all of us were children once, after all, and sometimes Cool Ranch is the only glue that can hold body and soul together. But my friend was right: There is something peculiarly abject about a mystery flavor. Or maybe a better word is shameless — a no-apologies spree into the heart of industrial taste. Her disgust only deepened my interest. I’m fascinated by foods many of my peers find faintly ridiculous or even repulsive. As a historian, I’ve studied spray-can foods, fake meat, and MSG; at the moment, I’m working on a book about artificial flavors, based on my PhD research into the history of flavor science.
There are not one but two Four Loko mystery flavors, mystery flavor Chapstick, and even mystery flavor vape juice.
Since my initial Doritos encounter, the universe of flavor mysteries — limited-edition releases with undisclosed, guess-it-if-you-can flavors, usually linked to contests and prizes — has vastly expanded. There are not one but two Four Loko mystery flavors, mystery flavor Chapstick, and even mystery flavor vape juice.
In March 2017, Soylent—a company whose founder once dismissed the idea of “flavor” altogether — announced a limited-edition mystery flavor. In a kind of cyberpunk charade, you could only buy it with bitcoin on Soy Route, the company’s site on the dark web. That summer, Canadian Pringles glommed onto another trend with a spoof true-crime podcast featuring “Evelyn de Paris,” a fictitious Montreal “investigative journalist” who tries to crack the case of the mystery Pringles flavor.
A huge amount of energy, ingenuity, and investment goes into creating a food system that doesn’t just feed our bodies but excites our desires. Food and beverage companies try to find ways to captivate our fickle appetites; multinational “market intelligence” firms predict next year’s craveworthy flavors; expert flavorists customize chemical creations to evoke exotic tastes. As the food world increasingly resembles fast fashion — churning through trends at an ever-quickening rate — we’ve become accustomed to having new flavor sensations lobbed at us, be it turmeric or gochujang or Ethiopian berbere.
Yet for most of human history, being unable to discern what something is going to taste like was not a good thing: It was a sign of danger. Mystery flavors “run contrary to the millennia of evolutionary history, where we had to figure out our environment and get enough food to survive without eating poison,” explains Rachel Herz, PhD, an expert on sensory psychology and the author of Why We Eat What We Eat.
“Mystery flavors,” Herz told me, “are a luxury of 21st-century existence.”
We can indulge in “flavor mysteries,” in other words, because we feel relatively certain that the food-like things we put in our mouths won’t kill us — at least not right away. Still, if you’ve ever tried a mystery flavor, you know that these are usually not, strictly speaking, luxuries. Most of them are kind of gross. So, what can the current boom in mystery flavors tell us about the state of industrial food and our relationship to it?