If you eat processed food- which the majority does – there’s a fair chance that you tasted something that was designed by a flavor chemist. However, getting pre-packaged foods to taste the way they do is an exhaustive scientific task. Most of what people experience as “taste” is actually born out of our sense of smell, as opposed to the taste buds. A number of volatile compounds play a role in how we experience food, drink, fragrances, scents, etc. These compounds are in fact molecules that are light enough to produce a form of vapor or gas, and the many complex ways in which we perceive them as flavor is not as straightforward as one would imagine.
This makes the understanding of flavor (partly) a chemical process. It’s a process that involves everything from super-tasting chemists to outsourcing of complex ingredients to the ever-growing flavor industry.
The Flavor Industry
Not surprising, flavor engineering is a multi-billion dollar industry with dedicated chemists who work relentlessly to create both natural and artificial flavors that the average consumer finds tasty and appealing. This works by blending essential oils, aromatic chemicals, essences, botanical extracts, etc., to design different taste experiences.
Using a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (lab instrument used to separate and detect concentrations of mixtures of volatile compounds); flavor scientists are able to quantify aroma molecules in say, a cup of tea. But it doesn’t end there, because it has to be determined which of the molecules are most important to its overall flavor, whether it’s sweet, fruity or sour.
Because of this, scientists have to come up with ways to study chemistry and aroma perception in tandem. Companies such as Cargill and Givaudan manufacture and create flavor for a variety of foods, beverages, confections, pharmaceuticals, oral care products, nutrition products, cosmetics, even pet food.
That’s right: the usefulness of the flavor industry doesn’t start or end with packaged foods; there is a wider market out there, with medications, liquid prescriptions, toothpastes, lip balm, vitamins, and even sports gels. They all follow a similar principal to what the perfume industry does, but the major difference is the fact that their compounds have to be safe for human consumption.
In addition to mixing compounds, flavor chemists have to be super-tasters as well. In fact some renowned flavor chemists attend cooking clinics and are known to follow the work of famous chefs. They have to understand the very workings of taste- and that’s a complicated set of sensory experiences.
Indeed, the often overlooked sense of taste is a complex physiological process which works in conjunction with our sense of smell- a hundred thousand taste buds elicit different sensations of bitter, sweet, sour, salty, etc.; and the challenge for flavor chemistry is the creation of a perfect mixture of compounds that will hit all the right marks.
A large company like Givaudan employs close to 9,000 people in 45 countries and has created literally thousands of flavors that are currently in use in a variety of products. But as those experts discovered, the best way to come up with these tastes, (whether a mimicry of an existing aroma or the scientists are creating a completely new flavor), is to modify existing tastes and aromas, as opposed to creating new ones.