Back home


America's favorite ice cream is flavored with wood pulp, and many soft drinks owe their sweetness to coal. There are hardly ever any cherries in a cherry lollipop, or bananas in banana cake. Maple syrup need not come from the tree that bears this name, and a chocolate cookie can contain only a trace of chocolate.

If this information comes as any surprise to you, just read the list of ingredients printed on soda bottles, candy bars, cookie boxes or packages of prepared foods. Down in the small print you are almost sure to read the words, "artificial flavoring."

What is the reason? Are not natural flavors good enough? Of course they are; they often taste better than the artificial. But they present many problems. The most obvious is that of cost. Strange as it seems, it is cheaper to make peach flavor in the laboratory than to squeeze and concentrate the natural juice. You can often get the real thing, if you are prepared to pay for it.

"It is not necessarily better, though," insist chemists at Dodge & Olcott, which makes flavors as well as smells. Many natural products, for example, do not like to be cold.

"Make mine vanilla," cry more than half of America's enthusiastic ice-cream eaters.

It just so happens that vanilla loses some of its taste when it gets too cold. In addition, pure vanilla is likely to have a somewhat fatty taste. It is better when mixed with vanillin, a synthetic made out of wood pulp.

"A number of other natural flavors have not kept up with the times, either," adds a food manufacturer. "They are not up to date."

In the old days a woman thought nothing of spending an afternoon turning out a batch of delicious bonbons in her own kitchen. A bottle of natural flavoring, a bar of cooking chocolate, perhaps a stick of cinnamon, and sugar were all mixed by hand in small quantities. Today the candy manufacturer has taken over the job. Hundreds of thousands of soft creamy bonbons, chocolates with fruit and cream centers, chewy caramels and succulent hard candies are turned out. The single bottle of flavoring must be multiplied hundreds of thousands of times, too - with unexpected results.

0x01 graphic

Recently a man planning to open a candy factory sat down with pencil and paper to figure out just how much of everything he would need. He was stunned to discover that it would take 30 pounds of natural strawberry juice

to get enough flavoring for only 100 pounds of candy. The number of men needed to handle such quantities and the amount of space he would have to rent would make each candy cost more than a steak dinner. What is more, enough natural juice to flavor an entire vat would make the mixture so liquid that it would be impossible for the candy to form.

Luckily for those of us who like sweets, he found a way out - artificial flavoring. Only one half an ounce gave the taste and smell of strawberries to the 100 pounds of candy.

The natural fruit is just as uncooperative when it comes to mass-produced ice cream and cake. An ice-cream maker who used only natural strawberries or peaches would need so much juice and strained fruit that the dessert would end up as water ice. A fruit-flavored cookie or cake would be likely to leave the oven as a soggy mess. The taste would not be one for you to smack your lips over, either. Cooking in itself makes flavors endure conditions they never met in nature. Many of them simply shrivel up and fly away when it gets too hot. A cherry or banana cake made with the natural fruits would be tasteless, because these flavors vanish into thin air when heated. Synthetics that thrive on extreme heat can be made.

"It is not always necessary to switch to synthetics completely," says a food processor. "We often use some natural, reinforced by the highly concentrated imitation."

Every change in our food habits makes new demands on flavors. In your grandmother's day no housewife could possibly dash home from an afternoon Parent-Teachers' Association meeting and prepare a delicious dinner by popping frozen foods into boiling water, opening cans, and producing a cake from a packaged mix. Today the shelves of every supermarket are stacked with canned foods, powders for gelatin desserts and pudding, ice cream, baked goods, cake mixes, soft drinks, breakfast cereals, and specialties ranging from canned chicken fricassee to frozen pizza.

Several months may pass between the time the manufacturer puts the mix into the package and the day when the housewife opens it, adds eggs and milk, and whisks it into the oven. Some of the natural flavors do not like to stand around. They are impatient and change - usually for the worse. A number of them become insipid; others turn bad. Nut flavors, for example, are apt to develop a rancid taste.

Another problem that must be solved by the manufacturer of processed foods today is that of making his product taste the same every time you buy it. Nature is full of surprises. Sometimes an apple is sweet, and sometimes it is tart. The amount of sunshine or frost or rain can change the taste of an entire crop. There are good years for grapes, and bad years. But no one will put up with a bad year for gelatin desserts. We expect every dish to taste exactly like the one before. The only way to assure this is to control the flavor chemically in the laboratory.

Many natural flavors are good in any season ... if you can get them. Poor crops, wars, revolutions, earthquakes and floods remove many plant products from our shelves. At a number of times in our history shipments of spices from the Far East were completely cut off. This was true during World War II, for example. At that time the flavorings industry produced synthetic pepper, cinnamon, cassia and anise to fill the gap. They were not quite so good as the natural; the bite of the seed was lacking. But they were better than nothing.

Artificial flavors also help the millions of Americans with steak tastes and stew budgets. The average person today is accustomed to dishes that once were eaten only by the very rich.

"There are still luxury foods, like caviar and guinea hen," a food manufacturer remarks, "but there are no longer any luxury flavors."

0x01 graphicWhenever the price of a product mounts, chemists rush to their laboratories to make a substitute. Nutmeg, for example, became scarce and expensive at one time; a synthetic quickly made its appearance.

The most obvious use for imitations is to conceal unpleasant tastes. Just as a good smell can mask a bad one, a good artificial flavor can conquer a natural bad one.

The mother of a sick five-year-old was surprised recently when the doctor pulled out his prescription pad and asked the child: "Well, which shall it be? Cherry, strawberry, or peach?"

If none of these had suited the patient he might have tried banana, chocolate, lemon, raspberry, mint, cinnamon or even maple.

As people grow older they lose their enthusiasm for sweet, fruit-flavored medicines. The flavor of wine or an after-dinner liqueur has been developed to suit sophisticated taste buds.

When you consider the uses of artificial flavors you probably think first of soft drinks, candy, cakes, cookies and chewing gum. You are quite right to do so. How many soft drinks do you swallow in a year? If you are typical of Americans today you down about 200. The largest number of these are cola drinks, with orange, lemon and lemon-lime as the runners up. Between one half and one ounce of flavor is all that is needed for six gallons of "pop." Some of these extracts do two jobs and color as they flavor; other soft drinks have color added separately.

When your father was a child many drugstore soda fountains sold glasses of plain soda water for two cents. Little boys often came in and ordered this drink from the clerk. When he had put the two cents in the cash register they would beg, "Just put in a little flavor, please." Few clerks were able to resist.

More than four million pounds of flavoring have gone into the candy vats in the last few years. Orange, lemon and lime are the most popular for hard candies, though such odd flavors as rose, violet and root beer are used, too. When imitation chocolate is added, the candy maker needs just a touch of the expensive natural flavor.

There is nothing modern about chewing gum, except for its flavor. Hundreds of years ago the Mayan Indians of Central America and Mexico chewed the gum of the sapodilla tree, and the North American Indians popped the hardened sap from the spruce tree into their mouths.

Both types were certainly chewy, but not very tasty. The first flavor added to gum was licorice. It was quickly followed by spearmint, peppermint, wintergreen, cinnamon and all the others that we know today. People looking for new taste sensations can chew a chocolate-flavored gum, carnation, or any fruit from banana to blueberry. Chewing gum has come a long way since the heyday of the Mayans.

Smoking is another old habit treated in a modern way. You may have read in your history books about the time a servant poured water over Sir Walter Raleigh in an effort to save his master from burning to death. The English statesman, who was enjoying his cigar, was rather annoyed. Despite this famous story, Sir Walter was not the first to discover the pleasures of smoking. Centuries before, the Indians of the West Indies and parts of Central and South America used tobacco. The North American Indians rolled tobacco leaves to form crude cigars.

Our cigarettes taste much better today. Tobacco leaves are treated with a combination of natural and artificial flavors. The most widely used have the romantic names of "deer-tongue" and "tonka," which are plants in the vanilla family. Since filter-tip cigarettes have become popular the flavors are made even stronger than they were before.

When soldiers are stationed abroad, they are often surprised by the eagerness with which people of other countries ask for American cigarettes. Flavor chemists insist that they are responsible.

Their skills are also welcomed by those who eat to grow thin. Americans today wish to be slender. Low-calorie foods make it possible for them to diet painlessly, particularly when artificial flavorings are used. Many natural flavors are not for the plump. Fruit juices, for example, contain some sugar. Most low-calorie foods proudly boast that they have no sugar at all. Chemical sweeteners plus synthetic flavors do the job instead. One of the best known of the sugar substitutes is "saccharine," which is made out of "toluene," a by-product of coal. Most artificial flavorings have no calories at all. This is a good thing, as sugarless drinks need from 10 to 20 percent more flavor than those made with regular sugar.

Old food tastes, as well as new, are satisfied by the flavor makers. There are artificial flavorings that meet the centuries-old rigid rules set down for the diet of Orthodox Jews. The making of, these "kosher" flavors is approved by rabbis, the Jewish religious leaders.

Each development in food processing brings a new use for synthetic flavors. An inexpensive butter substitute is produced; a "butter" flavor makes its appearance. A few years ago a breakfast-cereal manufacturer came up with a brand-new idea: why not coat dry cereal with flavored sugar? He called in the flavor makers, who appeared with flasks of liquid caramel, butterscotch and fruit. Today you find the results on the shelves of any supermarket.

Canned or frozen beef stew, ravioli and chicken a la king have been in the markets for some time, but new research on these products is now being done.

"Much of the meat taste is lost in the processing," explains a flavor chemist. "And so we are trying to create an artificial beef or chicken flavor that could be added to the sauce. Some of the workers in the laboratory joke that we are preparing for a world in which beef stew will have no beef, and chicken a la king no chicken. Our aim, however, is to make food more enjoyable for everybody, rich or poor."

Even the animal kingdom is not neglected. One day a flavor chemist visited the steamship docks and watched the longshoremen unpacking the lead containers of anise oil from China. He noticed that each container was badly scarred by the teeth marks of rats trying to get at the anise. This gave him an idea. He rushed back to his laboratory and developed imitation anise flavor. This was then used in animal feed to the great joy of the beasts involved.

(From The artificial world around us, by Lucy Kavaler)