Ask someone to describe bubblegum flavor and most likely, that person will be at a loss for words.
Like other artificial flavors, bubblegum is simply a mixture of volatile compounds (those that evaporate and have odors) that are supposed to imitate a natural flavor. But does bubblegum really mimic another natural occurring flavor?
More on that in a second because we first need to understand how flavor works. And to understand how flavor works, we have to realize why our sense of taste and smell work together, as the two are completely intertwined.
Simply put, molecules released by foods stimulate nerve cells in the nose, mouth and throat, which transmit messages to the brain where specific smells or tastes are identified. Olfactory (smell nerve) cells are stimulated by odors; gustatory (taste nerve) cells are clustered in the 5,000 and 10,000 taste buds of the mouth and throat, and they react to the foods we eat.
The difference between the two senses is taste focuses on distinguishing just five flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter or umami (savory). But our nose can detect an astounding 1 trillion different odors. So it's the interactions between our senses of taste and smell that create the flavors we know.
Bob Boutin, president of Knechtel Inc./Bentley Specialties Inc., has been working in flavor innovation for a long time, and his company develops candies and snacks for some of the world's largest food companies. "Artificial flavors are a combination of chemicals put together to mimic the ingredients seen in the natural flavor," he says via email. "A good flavorist is very skilled at sensing and tasting these various flavor compounds."
Once a flavorist identifies those compounds, Boutin explains, he or she can create a similar flavor with a new mixture of flavor chemicals (more on those below). The new flavor has to be called artificial because the ingredients were artificially generated.
So back to bubblegum. Unlike natural flavors, which can include hundreds of volatile flavor compounds that create their unique tastes and smells (more than 250 volatile components have been identified in the banana, for instance), bubblegum flavor is absolutely, well, made up.
It's derived using esters, which are flavoring chemicals with distinctive fruit-like odors that are supposed to mimic natural tastes. For instance, banana flavoring comes from the ester isoamyl acetate.
"Bubblegum flavor is a strawberry-banana-punch type of flavor," Boutin says. "It was created to appeal to the children's market, as well as some adults. It gives long-lasting flavor and chemically does well in the chewing gums formulation."
Today there are so many different flavors of bubblegum on the market, one exact "recipe" simply doesn't exist. But one thing we do know is the first bubble gum was accidentally created by Walter Diemer for the Fleer Corporation in Philadelphia in 1928. He's credited with the indescribable bubblegum flavor that we know today, and for making the gum pink because "it was the only food coloring on hand."
All of this is to say that you simply can't describe what bubblegum flavor is because it doesn't represent anything natural, like grape or blueberry. Some think it tastes like a mix of strawberry and banana flavors. Others say it's more a combination of strawberry and cinnamon (huh?).
"I'm not sure it is specific to any one flavor, but rather a blending of several: banana, strawberry, cherry, a little orange and or lemon," Boutin explains. "The exact ratios are specific to each company. Some want it to be more banana, others more strawberry-ish."
Perhaps the only consensus is the flavor is overwhelmingly fruity. We'll buy that.