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Taste the Mystery

The tantalizing rise of the mystery flavor

Nadia Berenstein
Aug 23, 2018 · 10 min read
Credit: rolfo/Moment/Getty

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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?

I was surprised to discover that mystery-flavor contests have been around since at least the 1930s. I found announcements for these contests in local and regional newspapers spanning much of the 20th century. Mostly, they involved ice cream, and the point was not to correctly guess the flavor but to coin a nifty name for a new blend or swirl. (Some winners from the 1930s include: Fruitabunda and Mellow Mix.) Contest winners were promised cash and other prizes, including a four-day vacation to Disneyland (Stewart’s Ice Cream, 1956), a Plymouth Gold Duster coupe (Carnation, 1973), or an ominous-sounding “mystery-trip to ‘somewhere’” (Oak Farms, 1958).

Then there are mystery flavors that are permanent fixtures of the retail landscape. The classic example is the Dum Dum lollipop with the question-mark wrapper — the one you inevitably pull out of a fishbowl on the receptionist’s desk at the doctor’s office. The Spangler Candy Company revealed several years ago that these mystery lollipops are the ones that tumble out at the start of each batch, commingling traces of the earlier flavor with the new one. (This also seems to be the case with “White Mystery” Airheads.) These types of flavor mysteries don’t have a solution—or, rather, the solution is indeterminacy itself, the inevitable fluxes that occur in mass production.

What makes the new wave of mystery flavors different from both of these is this: The goal is to puzzle out the riddle of identity, to consume the unknown and belch out its true name. Flavor, in other words, has been gamified.

The first ripples of this trend appeared around 2002, when Mars, Inc., released special-edition packages of Skittles and Starburst with bleached-white mystery candies mixed in among the rainbow. Consumers were invited go online and enter their guesses (along with their personal data) for a chance to win prizes. A trickle of other mystery flavors followed, especially in the candy aisle.

A turning point was 2008, when Doritos upped the ante with “The Quest.” This mystery-flavor contest was tied to a Flash-based multi-chapter puzzle game with an elaborate backstory about a “golden ARTIFACT of immense wealth, awaiting discovery in the SECRET CITY” — kind of like Myst, but for Doritos. Guessing the flavor correctly was just the beginning. To win the $100,000 prize, finalists who made it through the game had to compete in a series of physical ordeals in Las Vegas, as well as “intense mental challenges,” such as “solving an anagram in a dark elevator lit with black lights” at the Planet Hollywood casino, according to a news release. (The mystery flavor was Mountain Dew.)

This seems to have broken the seal, expanding mystery flavors’ territory from sweet to savory and unleashing a growing horde of mystery-flavored products, including further generations of mystery Doritos in the United States and Mexico. There were mystery Lay’s and mystery Peeps, mystery Icee, and now mystery Sparkling Ice. With the rise of social media, mystery flavors have multiplied, and the marketing strategy has shifted from complicated online games to lower-key hashtag-indexed posts, creating a sort of open forum on matters of taste.

How often do you really ponder the qualities of an Oreo or the way in which the flavor of a potato chip unfurls?

The gamification of mystery flavors is inextricable from the internet, that scentless, flavorless realm where we sink so much of our time, and its vast data-collection capacities. To food companies, our tastes and preferences are the real mysteries, which raises the question: Are mystery flavors a tool for gathering data about our perceptions and preferences, likes and dislikes? What becomes of all the flavor guesses, right and wrong, submitted through online platforms? It is difficult to obtain definitive answers to these questions.

But if the internet facilitates the transmission of data about what we taste, it also invites us to share our experiences with others. In this regard, the explosion in mystery flavors’ popularity might be one of the consequences of the “snackification” of American eating, a transformation away from the shared meal and toward round-the-clock self-feeding, driven by anxiety, boredom, or actual hunger. “Snacking is now the number one meal occasion in America,” Brad Hanna, executive vice president at Barkley-FutureCast, a market research firm specializing in decoding millennial desires, told me. The gratifications of a snack are intense but solitary. I gaze at my screen, gnawing on a blue Twizzler; you gaze at your screen, smearing Doritos powder on the keyboard of your laptop. We’ve each chosen the snack that suits us, the one that will power us through the remainder of the workday, and we eat, silently, alone.

Mystery flavors are a snack food phenomenon, but they are also designed to be commented upon and shared. This may be why so many mystery flavors are bizarre or outrageous, like the Mountain Dew Doritos of 2008, or the Lay’s West Coast Truffle Fries of 2015. This is also why they might be particularly popular with millennials and Gen Z consumers. These age groups, Hanna says, are driven to “shareable experiences,” especially ones that don’t feel elite. “Mystery flavors are very inclusive,” he observes. Instead of eating alone, we are tasting together — even if only via the hashtag scrim of social media.

While writing this article, I accumulated a small collection of mystery-flavored items, including an unopened box of Mystery Flavor Oreos from summer 2017.

Technically, the Oreos expired in February, but I have faith in the incorruptibility of industrial food, and so, fearlessly, I choose a cookie and take a bite. It’s immediately, vividly clear what the solution to this mystery is. It has a high-pitched, rubbery sweetness — suggestive of fruitiness without evoking any particular fruit — that unmistakably shouts FRUITY PEBBLES! with a cartoon bullhorn.

The recognition was automatic and immediate, like a reflex, even though I haven’t eaten a Fruity Pebble in ages. This is one of the services mystery flavors provide: They can make familiar flavors strange again. In most cases, however, a mystery flavor provokes not certainty but doubt and disorientation. This is deliberate. Whiteness — the intentional absence of color cues — is a common mystery-flavor shibboleth, a withholding of crucial information that is intended to unmoor sensory judgment.

The gamification of mystery flavors is inextricable from the internet, that scentless, flavorless realm where we sink so much of our time, and its vast data-collection capacities.

Usually, when we eat, our focus is on hedonics: Do I like this? Do I not like this? How much do I like it? What’s my favorite? But how often do you really ponder the qualities of an Oreo, or the way in which the flavor of a potato chip unfurls? A mystery flavor asks you to consider smell and taste seriously — mindfully, even. The flavors of processed foods represent a sequence of deliberate choices; they are objects of immaculate design. A mystery flavor invites you to approach the task of consumption with the same type of analytic reasoning as the expert flavor chemists who constructed the flavor in the first place.

But this also means confronting the fundamental indeterminacy of flavor. At the chemical level, flavor molecules are volatile, promiscuous, and nonexclusive. The same chemical may be found in green peppers and white wine, or in cherry-flavored rocket pops and fancy marzipan, assuming different sensory meanings in these different guises. We also each perceive the world differently, with different arrangements of sensory receptors, but how we experience and interpret flavors is shaped not only by our unique biology but also by our lifetime of experiences encountering these molecules in the wild. In this way, a flavor “could trigger a blue dress/gold dress scenario,” say Herz, the sensory psychologist, referring to the viral meme that blew everyone’s mind back in 2015. In other words, the same molecule could be legitimately interpreted different ways by different people.

When we take a bite and wonder, “What is this?” we are, in a way, probing our own sensual histories as eaters: “Where have I tasted this before?”

But there’s another way of approaching flavors, one that lets go of attachment to realism and indulges in sensory abstraction. I spoke with Sean Raspet, an artist who works with flavor and aroma chemicals and a fellow mystery-flavor enthusiast. Raspet designed a Soylent flavor and currently works on nonfood, a hybrid art/commercial project developing an algal food source.

Raspet sees flavor molecules as “sculptural materials,” tools for achieving a kind of sensory abstraction. “It’s similar to what happened with visual art in the earlier part of the 20th century,” he told me. “Artists began thinking about the elements of painting in their own right; how a color or mark could be its own presence, separate from how it could be used to paint a picture of something in the world.”

He explains: “I try as much as possible, in the flavors I develop, to not have them reference things in particular.”

What if we thought of mystery flavors in the same way? Not as wonky simulations of “real” things but as sensory experiences unto themselves?

Looking at it in another way, mystery flavors are not the exception but the rule. We are surrounded by flavor mysteries. “Natural flavor,” “artificial flavor,” “naturally essenced” — all of these terms are black boxes, enclosing long lists of chemical compounds that give manufactured foods their flavors. But even if we pried open those boxes, accessed those lists of chemicals, and traced them to their sources, we would hardly be more enlightened. The meaning is not in the chemical; it’s in the sensory experience it evokes.

A “mystery” can mean something beyond the scope of human understanding, like why the universe exists or what happens after we die. But a mystery can also be an invitation to play, to puzzle out, to free-associate and not be limited by the name on a package. The indefinite quality of mystery flavors isn’t a liability—it’s an opportunity.

What my friend who was scandalized by my DORITOS® JACKED™ Test Flavor 2653 didn’t understand was this: It’s not the what’s in the bag. It’s what you bring to it.

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