By Bryan Quoc Le | 150 Food Science Questions Answered
Flavors of the Grocery Aisle
When I get a chance to actually take my time while grocery shopping, sometimes I like to just 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’ll have to look up and read about later on. After performing this label reading ritual a couple times I realized that no matter how many ingredients I knew or didn’t know in a product, the list almost always ended with the same inevitable, cryptic words:
The terms seemed to be rather…how do you say? Vague. And for what it’s worth, it could refer to any number combination of more than 3,000 different chemicals, mixtures, and extracts, so the flavor world in itself could also be called vague. So what does the term “natural flavors and artificial flavors” actually mean? What’s in them? And who’s making them?
Flavors at the Turn of the Century
During the early and mid-20th century, when refrigeration was commercially developed and rolled out into every modern home, 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 many flavor components naturally found in the foods. The results were many of these processed foods ended up tasting bland.
The rise of organic chemistry during the mid-1800s also led to the synthesis of new organic compounds that could be readily and cheaply constructed from petrochemical feedstocks.1 Many of these compounds were found to give taste to processed foods that were similar to the original food product prior to 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 and preserve their delicious taste. Chemical instruments and methods for analyzing the chemical composition of food flavors became more and more sophisticated, allowing food technologists to reconstruct the flavor profile of foods with greater precision and accuracy.
However, even despite the amazing advancements in analytical methodology, the human element still plays an invaluable role in the design of flavors. 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 add a unique depth in flavor, and add to what we would call an actual, authentic strawberry flavor. These smaller components may only be present at parts per million or billion, and barely make a blip as a signal on a chromatograph, yet their impact on our senses may be disproportionately large. Some flavor components can even be tasted at concentrations as low as parts per billion. While the most sophisticated gas chromatograph have limits of detection of 10-15 grams, human noses have been reported to smell aromas around 10-17! So a human intermediary is always needed to bridge the gap between chemical analysis and subjective taste.
That is where a flavorist come in.
A Unique Path
Flavorists are technical professionals in the flavor industry who are trained to design flavors using individual flavor components, extracts, oils, and synthetic compounds.2 With a wide spectrum of different molecules and ingredients available to use in their creations, flavorists must draw upon their olfactory and gustatory memory to synthesize a desired flavor for a product, much like how a pianist must bring together notes to play a song or a perfumer creates a new scent using a multitude of fragrant chemicals.
In the United States, flavorists are unique in that they must undergo a seven-year apprenticeship under the tutelage of a senior flavorist to earn full certification from the Society of Flavor Chemists (SFC).3 An apprentice flavorist is accepted to train in an industry-approved flavorist training program after passing an initial test of organoleptic (using your senses) ability, which can involve a test to determine if the applicant can differentiate levels of sweetness in different concentrations of sugar solutions, or recognizing and remembering the flavors of unlabeled flavor components such as vanilla, peppermint, lemon, coffee, or banana.2 During the first five years, an apprentice flavorist is initially trained by repeatedly compounding flavors to achieve a specific flavor result.For example, an apprentice may be given a coffee product and be asked to match its flavor using available raw components. By diluting and combining different concentrations of flavor ingredients, the flavor may eventually be mimicked with some approximation. An apprentice develops skills by learning to match nuance flavor components to the desired flavor product to continue bringing more authenticity to the whole flavor. The apprentice will also be asked to catalogue and describe several flavor ingredients each day to begin creating a written and mental library of their organoleptic properties.4
After five years, the apprentice is tested by a written and oral examination for their knowledge of flavor components based on a general syllabus provided by the SFC. If they pass with a minimum of an 80%, the apprentice moves on towards becoming a junior flavorist and continues training for two years. Junior flavorists undergo an additional examination process where they must pass with a minimum of 90% to attain certified membership into the Society of Flavor Chemists. However, the work doesn’t stop there. The flavor industry typically requires between 10 to 15 years of benchtop experience directly working with flavors to recognize professionals as senior flavorists. With increasing experience, skill, and talent, flavorists may be honored with professional titles such as master flavorist or chief flavorist.
The Work of a Flavorist
Due to the long training process, flavorists tend to remain in the flavor industry working for a company that devotes a major portion of its commercial operations towards selling flavors to other food companies, also known as a flavor house, or food and pharmaceutical companies with internal R&D flavor divisions.
Flavor houses compete for projects provided by the greater food industry. A food company may approach a number of flavor houses and give a briefing with descriptions of the flavor profile for their product, or give a physical example of a pre-existing product or natural product to mimic. The flavorist will work to match the client’s desires with their own understanding of how flavor ingredients come together. The challenge comes when there are subtle differences in a client’s perception of a flavor and the flavorist’s. Perhaps a client wants a rich, dark chocolate that has more hints of Mexican vanilla, which requires the flavorist tweak their flavors closer to that description. Cost becomes a major consideration in the construction of flavors, a constraint that tends to compete with the drive for authenticity in a flavor. A flavorist has to also consider the flavor ingredients available to use in a project as factors like seasonality of flavor crops, use of natural versus artificial ingredients, heat stability, process complexity, shelf-life, and product material properties are constantly involved in the decision-making process. A client may also ask a flavor company to create a less costly mimic the flavor of a competitor’s product, which becomes a task of analytical matching rather than creative originality.
Sometimes, a flavor may not even have a counterpart in nature but become popular in its own right. For example, Red Bull is cited as a medley of synthetic flavors that gives a unique, medicinal taste which people desire that works as an energy drink.5 As a result of its immense popularity, that medicinal flavor has become associated with the concept of energy beverage. When other energy drink companies attempt to create a beverage that closely mimics a pre-existing natural flavor, consumers preferred the medicinal, synthetic flavor due to its already close connection with the feeling of energy.
Flavorists are tasked with the responsibility of continuously keeping up with regulations, ingredient availability, ingredient costs, culinary trends, and innovations in flavor. Some companies provide opportunities for flavorists to go on trips to the culinary hot spots of the world 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 sources for novel varietals of spice ingredients.6 Industry organizations also hold various study trips around the world to create opportunities for flavor professionals to learn more about innovative flavors and trends. The Women in Flavor and Fragrance Commerce is known to regularly sponsor flavor excursions.7 By holding memories of flavors in their mind, a flavorist is able to build up their toolbox of flavors so long as they continue to expand and deepen their taste palette through experience.
A Flavorful Career
The career of a flavorist is one of constant learning, creativity, innovation, and opportunities to explore the world of food. While the work and training are long and arduous, flavorists have the satisfaction of seeing their flavors end up in products on the grocery shelves and pharmaceutical counters. In some way, an experienced flavorist imparts some of their own signature into a flavor, adding nuances that tell a personal as well as a professional story. It has even been said that some flavorists can tell who made a particular flavor by taste alone. Even more importantly, as flavorists continue to redefine the flavor landscape of our foods, they will progressively become responsible for translating, interpreting, and designing flavors for our everyday gusto-olfactory lexicon. As a flavorist once remarked, “In 20 years…I’ll bet you that only 5 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.”8
Society of Flavor Chemists
SFC Certified Membership Syllabus
Perfumer & Flavorist Trade Magazine
CBS ‘60 Minutes’ Segment on Flavorists
Industry-Approved Flavorist Training Programs
Procter & Gamble: http://www.pgscience.com/home/where_do_i_fit/flavors_fragrance_11.html
International Flavors and Fragrances: http://www.iff.com/taste
Japan Flavor & Fragrance School: http://www.niffs.com/e/index.html
- Berenstein, Nadia. “The Inexorable Rise of Synthetic Flavor: A Pictorial History.” Popular Science, 23 Nov. 2015, popsci.com/history-flavors-us-pictorial. Accessed 16 Sept. 2017.
- Reineccius, Gary. Source Book of Flavors. Springer Science & Business Media, 2013.
- The Society of Flavor Chemists. The Society of Flavor Chemists, https://flavorchemists.com. Accessed 16 Sept. 2017.
- Buday, Eugene. ”On the Job: Becoming a Flavor Chemist.” Perfumer & Flavorist, June 2006, http://www.perfumerflavorist.com/flavor/application/multiuse/2847431.html. Accessed 18 April 2017.
- La Gorce, Tammy. “The Tastemakers.” New Jersey Monthly, 17 Jan. 2011, https://njmonthly.com/articles/eat-drink/the-tastemakers/. Accessed 16, Sept. 2017.
- Khatchadourian, Raffi. “The Taste Makers.” The New Yorker, 23, Nov. 2009, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/11/23/the-taste-makers. Accessed 5 May, 2017.
- WFFC Events. Women in Flavor and Fragrance Commerce, Inc. https://wffc.org/Events. Accessed 16 Sept. 2017.
- Classen, Constance; Howes, David; Synnott, Anthony. Aroma: The cultural history of smell. Routledge, 1994.
Bryan Quoc Le | 150 Food Science Questions Answered
IFTSA VP of Digital and Social Media (2019-2020)
Bryan is the author of 150 Food Science Questions Answered (Rockridge Press, 2020) and a Ph.D. candidate in Food Science at University of Wisconsin-Madison studying the health effects of garlic and onion flavors. He received his B.S. and M.S. in Chemistry at the University of California, Irvine. In another life, he walked 2,000 miles from California to Louisiana in six months, and learned that eating tuna and peanut butter every day was not meant for the average human body. After he met his wife, he learned that there was more to good food than canned goods and smoothies. While not juicing onions and pressing garlic, Bryan likes to run half-marathons, discover interesting cuisines with his wife, and help entrepreneurs develop great food products.