In front of me are two small plastic tasting cups. Both filled with identical dark pink gooey syrup. I scoop some of sample ‘A’ onto the white plastic spoon, and taste. Not unpleasant, sweet, but completely one dimensional. Now I taste sample ‘B’. An explosion of raspberry fills my mouth, a fruity, fresh deep ripe red berry flavour. It’s like someone took the best raspberry I ever ate and condensed it one hundred times.
The power of flavours to transform foods
And the difference between cups ‘A’ and ‘B’ ? The addition of 0.02% Raspberry Flavour 37481B. A flavour that contains nothing originating from an actual Raspberry. That is the power of flavours. Somewhere between an art form and a science, the flavourist who created this likely holds a PhD in chemistry with an additional 5 years of organoleptic (taste and smell) training. They can recognize and name over 2,000 individual flavour compounds just by taste. Globally there are only in the region of 500-900 people who are true flavourists. Products that depend the most heavily on flavours are beverages and confectionery. If you took the flavours out of an energy drink it would be unrecognizable. Candy would simply be chewy lumps of sugar.
Even 100% Fruit Juice contains flavours to make it taste fresh
Even items such as fruit juice reply on flavour technology to taste how we expect them to. Pasteurized orange juice usually contains special flavours called ‘add-back’ flavours. These are extracted from oranges in the first place, and added back to the heat pasteurized orange juice which has lost some of its fresh flavours from the heating process. You won’t find these on the label, as they are still considered ‘orange juice’. Sneaky, right?
Flavour is a global industry worth 28 Billion each year
Flavour is big business; some estimates are 28 Billion (USD) worth of flavours is sold each year around the globe. No single flavour company creates all the chemicals they use in their flavours. The large flavour companies are called ‘flavour houses’ in the industry. They have networks of distributors across the globe. In turn these distributors have specialized flavour sales people selling their wares to R&D technologists at various food and beverage manufacturers. In most cases the R&D technologist doesn’t know much more about the orange flavour they are using than you do.
‘Natural’ flavour compounds can be derived from wood or bacteria
In general, flavours are labelled on food packaging as natural or artificial. A flavour may be as simple as a single compound (i.e. artificial Vanilla flavour compound is called Vanillin). Others will contain anywhere from 15 to 100 individual compounds. These compounds are considered natural or artificial depending on how they were created. The meaning of the word ‘natural’ when describing something as artificial as adding flavour may seem dubious already. Compounds that are considered natural aren’t just the essences and oils of fruit and plants. Some natural compounds are derived from wood, or from fermentation bio-vats. The starting material, wood, bacteria etc. are considered natural.
Flavour houses will never tell you exactly what’s in a flavour
The industry is highly regulated. And although a flavour house will never tell you the exact 43 compounds that are in a particular strawberry flavour, you can rest assured that they are all from a larger approved list of over 2,000 flavour compounds. The flavour industry is moving towards international standards, however there are still some differences between USA and European approved flavour compound lists.
If you’re interested, the International Organization of the Flavor Industry, IOFI, has put together a global reference list: ‘An open ended, global, positive list of flavoring materials that are considered to be safe for their intended use by one or more internationally recognized assessment bodies.’ IOFI Global Reference List – Flavor Compounds
Artificial flavours taste more ‘real’ than natural flavours
If you had to choose a natural or an artificial strawberry flavour, which do you think will taste the most real? I’m willing to bet you would guess the natural flavour. You would be wrong. The lists of allowed compounds are split into naturally derived vs artificial (or synthetically derived). There are more than triple the amount of artificial compounds available than natural compounds. This means the flavourist has more options to combine in creating an artificial flavour. They often taste more real, better, rounder, fresher than natural flavours. Some even argue that artificial compounds are purer, and often more sustainably created than natural compounds that have to come from plant or animal origins.
Flavours are just the icing, you still need the cake
What exactly is a flavour? It’s a light weight molecule, this means it can easily become airborne and make its way into your nose and mouth to be detected. Have you ever noticed food smells stronger and even tastes different when it’s hot? The heat stirs up the light weight molecules and they can more easily act on your senses. Flavours by themselves are not much more than a scent. You need the foundations of sweetness, salt, savoury, acidity found in food to complete the picture. The most sublime results when using flavours are to artfully enhance quality food. Take for example a gourmet apple pie ice-cream made from real cream and apples. The underlying characteristics of apple are present, but some of the freshness has been lost in the heating and processing. The addition of Golden Delicious apple flavour and Tahitian Vanilla extract has the power to transform the ice cream. Everything now ‘pops’ and its as if the volume has been turned up or a fuzzy picture bought into sharp focus.
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