Do food manufacturers manipulate taste?

Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

­Even the biggest giants in food manufacturing can't afford to rest on their laurels. Consumer tastes change constantly: Suddenly sour is the new salty, or sweet is no longer sweet enough. Segments of the population with particular tastes grow in size or increase their purchasing power. Competitors replicate classic formulas or tweak them with new, exciting twists, driving old, unpopular flavors out of business. In order to stay on­e step ahead of changing food fashions, manufacturers turn to flavorists. Flavorists are food scientists who combine chemistry and artistry to concoct the perfect flavors.

Their work often requires months of tinkering and tests to concoct a single viable flavoring or flavor additive. This is because flavor is much more than strict gustatory sensation. While taste is a chemical sense perceived by receptor cells and interpreted by the brain, flavor is a combination of gustatory, olfactory, tactile, thermal and even painful stimuli. Flavor is the taste of food, as well as its smell, texture and consistency.

However, during the manufacturing process, a food's flavor can alter or break down. Some flavors need to be replaced while others are added to enhance taste or create new products. Flavorings are one type of food additive, a larger group that also includes nutritional additives, processing agents, preservatives and sensory agents. There are at least 1,200 flavor compounds available commercially, each composed of chemicals or chemical blends [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].

These chemicals can come from either natural or synthetic sources. Chemicals from natural sources become natural flavoring, while synthetic chemicals make artificial flavoring. The legal distinction between the two types of flavoring is clear: Natural flavors must be derived strictly from "a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products" [source: Electronic Code of Federal Regulations].

Aside from their sources, the chemicals that compose flavorings are the same. Flavor is too precise for there to be variation in its building blocks. If artificial and natural flavorings used different chemicals, they wouldn't produce the same flavor.

But how do flavorists create flavors? In the next section, we'll learn about flavor science.

Flavor Science

Flavor scientists can recreate the flavor of fresh green beans.
Flavor scientists can recreate the flavor of fresh green beans.
© Photographyer: Hayk Harutyunyan | Agency: Dreamstime.com

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 on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • "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=21:2.0.1.1.2.2.1.1&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