Back home

INSIDE THE FLAVOR FACTORY

In the early years of the twentieth century a chemist took home with him each night a bulging briefcase containing the formulas and reports on the work he was doing. He was afraid that if he left this top-secret information in the laboratory somebody else might come upon it and steal it. The artificial-flavorings industry was born in this atmosphere of secrecy.

For the past fifty years chemists and druggists have been trying to match nature's work in the laboratory. The idea of putting a concentrated flavor into a bottle goes back much further in history than that. The early flavors produced, however, were not synthetic. Your great-grandmother baked cakes and made candies with syrups of natural vanilla or peppermint. Even Coca-Cola, which was developed in the 1880's, was made out of natural products - caffeine taken from the cola nut and a tiny bit of cocaine from the coca leaf.

Flavor pioneers also hit on the idea of substituting one natural product for another with a similar taste. In this way "maple syrup" flavor was discovered in the seed of a plant called "fenugreek," which was plentiful in India, Iran, Arabia and Greece.

As the science of chemistry advanced, chemists and druggists began the difficult task of finding chemical substitutes for natural products. One chemist noticed that a compound called "amyl acetate" smelled like a banana. He combined it with some other chemicals and came up with a crude but recognizable banana flavor. Another observed that "methyl anthranilate" somehow reminded him of grape, so he used that as the main ingredient for an artificial grape flavor. Long afterward, with improved equipment, scientists learned that these early workers in the field had stumbled on some basic truths. Amyl acetate really does exist in the natural banana, and methyl anthranilate in grapes.

"In order to make synthetic flavors we must look into the depths of the essential oil or the fruit juice or extract and discover all the chemical compounds that are present," declares a research chemist.

How is this done? Some of the compounds are unmasked by means of fractional distillation. This is a heating process in which one compound after another reaches its boiling point. As chemists know the boiling points of each major chemical, this gives them an important identifying clue.

The natural product is also studied under infrared and ultraviolet light. The newest and most important piece of equipment for the flavor detective has the impressive name of "vapor phase chromatograph." In this apparatus the material being studied is changed into the form of gases. The gases are then separated and analyzed, and the findings are recorded on a graph.

With these tests 47 different chemicals have been discovered in tea and nearly 100 in coffee. In theory the flavor chemist simply needs to combine these chemicals in the laboratory, and presto! he has the perfect apple, grape or pepper flavor. Sometimes it works that way, but not always. In some cases the total taste is different from the sum of its parts. The identified chemicals are duplicated and put together, and the end product still does not taste right.

"We have found 29 compounds in apple, and still no one has been able to combine them in the way that they are put together in nature," reports a chemist sadly. "Perhaps the apple contains tiny amounts of other chemicals that have slipped past the laboratory apparatus."

Despite the discovery of most of the chemicals involved, the flavor of coffee still escapes duplication. Cocoa remains hard to reproduce. Nut flavors, and such specialty items as mushroom, stump the flavor chemists.

The research man must produce not only the right taste, but also the right smell. That is a basic part of a flavor, as anyone who has ever had a cold knows. Only sweetness, saltiness, sourness and bitterness are actually tasted.

"The more subtle part of the taste is recognized by the sense of smell," explain chemists at Givaudan-Delawanna.

It is not just a coincidence that most of the smell manufacturers make flavors, too.

Just to complicate matters, the odors of the flavor-making chemical compounds keep changing as they are combined with other elements. One chemist reports that he started an experiment with a chemical that smelled like rancid butter or cheese. Luckily, he was the type of person who is not easily discouraged. He carried on and eventually produced a fresh-strawberry flavor-smell. Another compound that resembles violet perfume is essential in making a successful raspberry flavor-smell.

In the last few years it has been discovered that there are a number of different ways of making the same artificial flavor. Chemical A and Chemical B are combined, and peppermint flavor appears. Another researcher tries putting Chemical C and Chemical D together - and peppermint is there again. Even more surprising, every so often a chemist makes up an imitation flavor that tastes exactly like the real thing, and discovers that it does not contain the chemical compounds so painstakingly discovered in the laboratory analysis of the natural product. Some of the chemicals used to make good imitation peach and strawberry flavors, for example, have not been found in the true fruit extracts, and yet they give the same effect. This is one of the mysteries still to be solved by the scientist.

If you visit a flavor laboratory you will see a chemist trying hundreds or even thousands of combinations of the known ingredients, plus a few others he is just guessing at. He makes up a small batch, smells it, and tastes it. Then he smells and tastes the real apple or sips the apple juice. Is he close? If not, he tries again, making a slight change.

How can he be sure he has succeeded?

The great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once commented: "One must ask children and birds how strawberries taste."

No flavor laboratory has ever tried to communicate with birds, but some do ask children for their opinions on new flavors. One chemist invited his son's schoolmates over to his home one day for a surprise party. The surprise was a new watermelon ice cream. Another passed around an after-school treat of root beer flavored candy. All the youngsters needed to do was to say whether they liked it.

Most taste panels, however, are made up of adults only. There are two types of panel: one composed of experts, and one of untrained people. Many flavors are tested by both. You may wonder how a person becomes a taste "expert." As a rule, he works in the food industry and has developed a keen sense of taste and smell. One major food company forms the panel with one highly trained chemist and 50 other employees.

In one recent test a number of foods with new flavors added were placed on a long table in an air-conditioned, odor-free room. The milder flavors were tested first. Each member of the panel took a spoonful of a solid food or a sip, in a brandy glass, of a liquid. He then sampled the naturally flavored food which was being copied. In some cases he was told which one was artificial; in others he was asked to guess. After each taste the person judging took a drink of ice water and ate a plain cracker. Then he went on to the next flavor. Individual booths were offered to judges who felt that they might be distracted by the presence of others.

0x01 graphicThe panel of people who are not experts does its testing under somewhat less formal conditions. The group may simply sit around a table in the test kitchen of the laboratory. This panel is made up of at least ten men and women. An effort is made to gather people of different ages, as it has been found that tastes change over the years.

When a youngster refuses an olive or makes a face at a salad doused in vinegar, someone is likely to smile and say: "Those tastes are cultivated. He'll like them when he gets older."

This is true of many bitter and sour foods. There are some other changes in food tastes that cannot be explained so easily. Children like licorice. When they reach the age of eighteen, somehow the taste for this pungent flavor is lost. The surprising thing, however, is that people over fifty like licorice again.

The members of the panel taste the food with the new flavor and then try to answer the question: What is it: This sounds easy. But many times even professionals are unable to identify a flavor correctly. Try to describe what is in juicy-fruit gum or Coca-Cola. They are good, but what are they?

The second, and most important, question is: Do you like it?

The artificial flavor is then compared with the natural Many imitations do not pass the comparison test, but go to the head of the flavor class anyway. Some of the moss popular man-made flavors are not at all like anything natural, but everybody enjoys them.

"Cherry" candy or soda could never fool anyone into thinking that the flavor came from the dark, juicy fruit It is not supposed to. Cherries, like many other fruits have a very bland flavor. Bite into a cherry. The feeling in your mouth is wonderful; there is a vague sense of sweetness, a faint aroma - that is all. Take away the texture, and very little is left. The accurate imitations o cherry are uninteresting and weak. What is commonly known as "cherry" flavor is actually an imitation of maraschino cherries. These are cherries which have been soaked in maraschino liqueur, or, to go a step further, in a liquid that is a chemical imitation of the liqueur. Whatever its basis, this artificial cherry flavor is one of the most popular in the world of tastes. A large flavor manufacturer states that he has had to develop several thousand formulas for cherry alone. Each is a little different from the others, depending upon the use for which it is intended, and the taste and pocketbook of the person who is going to eat the cherry cake or candy. Thousands and thousands of flavors have come out of the test tubes in the last few years. You can get artificial gooseberry or butter or hickory nut or coriander or brandy or American cheese or crab apple or quince or passion fruit or eggnog or watermelon.

"I produced a perfect string bean flavor," comments a chemist, "only nobody wanted it."

What to do with the artificial flavor is also important. The chemist and the home economist in the laboratory's test kitchen put their heads together. Will tutti-frutti be good in chewing gum or pudding? Would anyone swallow a loganberry carbonated drink? Some artificial flavors are tasty in practically anything from crackers to ice cream; others are suitable for soup or for gelatin only.

Company employees have a way of dropping into the test kitchens around four o'clock in the afternoon. They are "doing a bit of testing," they say, brushing away the crumbs.

"These snacks are risky, though," warns a home economist. "The cantaloupe-flavored cookies looked tempting, but somehow tasted like straw."

"We develop flavors and nonflavors, too," declares a chemist.

This is not just mumbo jumbo. A nonflavor or "blender," which is the correct chemical term for this, is a flavoring material which improves another flavor, without adding anything of its own characteristic taste. That is how monosodium glutamate, which you probably know as Accent, makes all sorts of foods taste better. Tiny amounts of peach, peppermint and almond oil also give a helping hand to a wide variety of flavors which do not taste a bit like peach, mint or almond. Salt also helps foods which could never be described as "salty."

Flavors must not only be good, they must also be safe. In order to be approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration of the United States Government, each extract must be tested on animals. Guinea pigs, rabbits, rats and dogs eat large amounts of food flavored with the chemicals that imitate spearmint, nutmeg or wild cherry. The tests usually go on for one or two years. This is not always as hard on the animal as it sounds.

A few years ago the Food and Drug Administration found that coumarin, a flavor used in imitation vanilla extracts, was harmful. Chemists set to work to discover a synthetic with the same taste, but without the bad effects. The rats whose food was flavored with the new vanilla substitute grew bigger and heavier than their brothers with unflavored feed. It was not that the food was more nourishing, but that it tasted so good that the rats kept coming back for second and third helpings. These same animals would then have been suitable candidates for tests on low-calorie foods.

"This type of guinea-pig research is elementary compared to some of the projects now getting under way," states a scientist. "Until recently, we have been trying to identify and duplicate the chemicals in natural flavors. The next step is for us to unveil the mystery of the way flavor is produced in nature. At what stage in its growth does a carrot begin to taste like a carrot? And why?"

Living matter is made up of cells. Inside are chemical compounds, called "flavor precursors," that are destined to become flavors. For them to do this, they must be made active by the presence of other chemical compounds known as "enzymes." Unfortunately, the enzymes are very fragile and disappear when food is prepared for canning, freezing or dehydrating. The precursors remain, but without the enzymes they are helpless. That is why so many processed foods do not taste good.

Scientists at the Evans Research & Development Corporation have worked out a way of making natural flavors in an unnatural way in the laboratory. They take the enzymes from the apple or pea - or, if they are being economical, from the apple core or pea pod-and put them back into the fruit or vegetable after it has been processed. The system is artificial; the flavor is natural.

In time scientists may learn to play some tricks with these enzymes. Spinach with corn-on-the-cob enzymes added, rhubarb with strawberry enzymes, squash with asparagus enzymes - these are just a few of the thoughts that come to mind. Whether these changes are possible depends upon the chemical composition of the flavor precursors, and this is now being studied.

A similar approach is being taken to the problem of meat flavors. Scientists have found two chemicals in uncooked meat which produce flavors when they are heated. The work is still experimental, but chemists believe that these chemicals could be added to anything from bread to dandelions before cooking. The heat will bring out the taste and smell of lamb chops, steak or ham.

These chemicals might also bring back the flavor to meat that has been stored for a long time. Research by the food industry and the Army has shown that meats stored under refrigeration for three years are still edible, but the taste is gone. The scientist plans to make it return. Anything seems possible in the space age.

Artificial flavorings will soar aloft with our space pilots. Ordinary food, such as sandwiches, is suitable only for fairly short flights. As astronauts' journeys get longer, semisolid foods squeezed out of a tube, food concentrates and liquid foods will be needed. All of these can benefit from the addition of flavors from earth-bound laboratories. For really long space trips to Mars or Venus our travelers will have to grow their own food. Algae, the most primitive plants on earth, can be grown in water tanks on board space ships. They may become the staff of life in outer space. The natural flavor is much like dried lima beans. Artificial flavors or enzymes from tastier foods will have to be added. The first colonists on Mars could then have orange juice algae and ham and egg algae for breakfast, tuna fish algae for lunch, and move on to steak algae, potato algae and peach algae for dinner.

Algae may also be used as food right here on earth someday. The fast-growing population of the world will need to tap food sources that are ignored at the present time. In addition to algae, your descendants may consume plankton, the tiny fish and plant life that floats in the sea. Yeasts that could be used as food can be gotten from the wastes of paper mills or grown in sugar solutions. These could be substitutes for the roast beef, potatoes and apples of today.

People will not change just because there are more of them. They will still want food to taste good. The familiar flavors will, therefore, come out of the laboratory and be added to the unfamiliar foods of the future.

The day may come when the foods that form the staples of our diet are used up. But the flavors will live on.

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