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March 28, 2017

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How scientists make jelly beans taste like fruit … or barf

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Leila Navidi

Candy served at the dessert station at the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace on Tuesday, September 11, 2012.

There’s a reason Chicken in a Biskit is so convincingly chicken-y. The cracker is a shining example of how chemists have wrangled our experience of flavor. Having broken down the compounds that create what we taste in a juicy orange or fatty piece of bacon, they create formulas that amplify and allow such tastiness to be infused into all kinds of edibles. Their work is the reason we have banana Runts and bubble gum Crest, but have you ever wondered how they do it?

What is flavor?

It’s a team effort by your nose, mouth and brain. Chemicals in food are detected by receptors in the nose and mouth, and they produce signals interpreted by the brain as aroma and taste along this spectrum: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, savory (umami).

Did you know?

The aroma of coffee is almost impossible to simulate, as it comes from key elements reacting with oxygen that dissipate rapidly.

The nose accounts for most of the experience of flavor, though the other senses contribute. The color and shape of food, and the environment in which you’re eating it, also affect how it tastes.

Each flavor represents a unique chemical combination, so that lemon candy you love is the result of a chemist identifying and synthesizing the fruit’s chemical profile.

To illustrate, the ACS points to a key aroma compound of pineapple, which humans can detect in super-tiny amounts — “the equivalent of a few grains of sugar in an Olympic-size swimming pool.” So the chemical cocktails that form food identities are notoriously difficult to peg.

The work of a master flavorist

Known as “flavorists,” flavor chemists consider their work an art and a science. Using gas and liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry and a host of natural and synthetic chemicals, extracts, oils and essences, they create the distinctive flavors of processed foods and beverages, tobacco products, alcoholic drinks, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, oral care items, vitamins, sports gels, pet foods and so on.

Don’t be fooled by the rainbow

Some of the most popular cereals contain multicolored pieces that all taste the same. Kellogg’s has admitted as much about Froot Loops. What is “Froot?” It’s a blend of fruit flavors.

They work predominantly to modify existing aromas and tastes, mimicking or attempting to improve on something natural. And they aren’t just creating the flavor — they’re engineering the way it hits, just like the chemists who make fireworks.

For example, a fruit flavor is ideal with immediately bursting sweetness that finishes clean, and it might be floral or jammy. Any flavorist’s aim is to concoct something addictively tasty, and when they achieve that, the formulas are considered incredibly valuable intellectual property.

So, how do they do it? Using a palette of thousands of chemicals and hundreds of natural flavors, they practice a refined version of trial and error to find the perfect mix. And the ingredients might surprise (or scare) you. Tech magazine Gizmodo described simulation of the taste of chocolate using substances that “individually taste and smell like potato chips, cooked meat, peaches, raw beef fat, cooked cabbage, human sweat, dirt and other distinctly un-chocolate-like aromas.”

Chemists construct their flavor profiles with mathematical precision to allow for incredibly minute adjustments, always being sensitive to how chemicals will react and whether mixtures will stand up to cooking.

Historical snapshots of flavor chemistry

• The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 established a Western Regional Research Center within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The WRRC’s goal was to develop new uses for farm commodities through rapidly advancing methods such as freezing and dehydrating. When World War II ended, researchers were free to explore flavor through its chemical essences.

Strange taste

To make its “Harry Potter”-inspired line (with such offerings as soap, sausage, vomit and rotten egg), flavor chemists at Jelly Belly used the real thing in lab assessments, finding the compounds that occur in smelly socks or spoiled cheese so the world could experience such terrors in sweet-looking little jelly beans.

• A WRRC chemist named Keene Dimick was tasked with finding out why a strawberry smells like a strawberry. His team processed 30 tons of the fruit over six seasons in order to extract a few grams of chemically pure strawberry oil. Given that arduousness, Dimick likely was thrilled when two chemists in the United Kingdom developed the gas chromatograph in 1952. The instrument could separate the chemical components of small and very complex samples. Dimick used it, and in 1956 he published his landmark findings on the strawberry.

• In 1961, Ron Buttery and Roy Teranishi used gas chromatography to study the aroma compounds in the vapor above food, a technique called static headspace analysis. The food industry uses it to detect when something has spoiled, and the method also has been used to root out impurities in pharmaceuticals or a person’s blood-alcohol level.

• In 2013, the WRRC was honored as a National Historic Chemical Landmark for its work in developing the field of flavor chemistry and subsequent improvements to processed foods and monitoring of food quality.

Interested in joining the industry?

Aspiring food chemists should have a naturally keen sense of smell and taste, and it helps to study food science, biology or chemistry in college.

Did you know?

Preserving baked goods or concentrating fruit juices can sap “volatile compounds” that provide flavor. So they are replaced on the back end. Encapsulation technology ensures that such volatiles are released at the right time, inside the human mouth, sometimes in stages.

They start the five-year training by doing lab work for a senior or master flavorist and develop a tasting notebook over time. Then they’re eligible for apprenticing membership in the Society of Flavor Chemists, which assesses knowledge and skills. (Think of what a wine sommelier goes through in order to be certified, proving the sensitivity of his senses in isolating notes of flavor). Two more years of study and the apprentice can apply for another interview and potential upgrade to “certified flavorist.”

The multi-billion dollar industry comes with a median salary for flavorists of nearly $70,000 (as of 2014 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

They share many skills with perfumers, who use chemicals to achieve desired fragrances in everything from perfume and candles to household cleaners and the scents piped into casinos to mask the smell of cigarettes.

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