Flavorings are made from precise mixtures of synthetic or natural chemicals. If they're mixed incorrectly or in the wrong quantity, the flavoring will not produce the desired flavor. So how do flavorists learn what chemicals make up particular flavors? How do they determine a flavor's correct blend?
Flavorists usually begin with a directive from a food manufacturer suggesting a new flavor. The scientists' first task is to decipher the directive's goal. Because flavor is a vague concept, it's often difficult for untrained people to describe it in unambiguous terms. Flavor scientists must use their artistry and creativity to pinpoint a company's flavor needs.
Some flavor businesses establish the chemicals behind a flavor by burning a sample food -- like a green bean -- in a gas chromatograph. As the green bean burns rapidly, it releases a vapor that is filtered into a spectrometer. The molecules pass through the spectrometer in order of weight and size, and flavorists identify their concentrations. After discounting the molecules that make no contribution to taste, scientists are left with the core chemical building blocks of green bean flavor. Then they replicate the flavor with natural or synthetic chemicals. Occasionally, when flavorists want their flavorings to mimic something more subtle, they'll sample the molecules of a plant's volatile gasses without ever having to break or burn the matter.
Once flavors are formulated, they must be tested in different foods and under different processing techniques. Many flavors will never make it to the shelves. Food manufacturers can't afford to launch and market a product with an imperfect flavor.
To learn more about flavor science and taste, peruse the links below.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- "Chemists Concoct New Taste Sensations." Chemecology. December 1990/January 1991.
- "Food additive." Encyclopædia Britannica. http://library.eb.com/eb/article-50538
- Fulmer, Melinda. "Food Firms Hope You Can Never Have Too Much of a Sweeter Thing." Los Angeles Times. April 28, 2002.
- Kluger, Jeffrey. "Inside the Food Labs." Time. October 2003.
- Reineccius, Gary. "What is the difference between artificial and natural flavors?" Scientific American. July 29, 2002. http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=what-is-the-difference-be
- Silva, Jill Wendholt. "Researchers Find the Right Worlds to Design Better Tasting Foods for Consumers." Kansas City Star. September 6, 2005.
- "Title 21: Food and Drugs." Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=37c16f32511a18ed0d0f22743dd35d85&rgn=div8&view=text&node=21:126.96.36.199.188.8.131.52&idno=21
- Warner, Melanie. "Food Companies Test Flavorings That Can Mimic Sugar, Salt or MSG." The New York Times. April 6, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/06/business/06senomyx.html?_r=1&oref=slogin