With my eyes wide open, I was like a kid in a candy store. Not just any kid though. I might as well have been little Charlie Bucket, the boy who found the Golden Ticket in a chocolate bar that gave him access to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The story, written as a novel by Roald Dahl, became an American musical fantasy film, starring Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, when I was all of eight years old. Thirty-four years later I was working in Bldg. ‘Mmm’, the four-story, black glass, non-descript building that housed the three business units of the flavor business for Firmenich, with Sweet Goods on the first floor, Beverages on the second floor, and Savory on the fourth floor, where you could find the kitchens of the TechnoChefs™. It is by no means anywhere close to being a factory with its own candy land, a river of chocolate, or a dwarfish labor force, but it does have flavorists. Flavorists are the creative scientists responsible for those natural and/or artificial flavors you often find at the end of the ingredients list on just about every single canned, boxed, bottled, or pouched food and beverage product in the world. They’re the ones secretly behind making sure that your chips taste chippy, your favorite chewing gum is mintier, and that your plant-based meatless-meat tastes, well, like meat, ironically enough. And on, and on, and on, and on. If it’s a manufactured food or beverage product, in any way shape or form, you can be fairly certain, maybe even guaranteed, it is flavored by a flavorist, in a lab, more often than not, in New Jersey.
Flavors are created through a blend of science and art. With access to more than 3,000 ingredients, many of which are proprietary and unique, Firmenich flavorists take into account the senses of taste, smell, and texture/sensation when designing flavors. All three sensory dimensions and interactions are key in the creation of an optimized flavor and simply have to be considered during flavor design. Not to mention the other ingredients and specific structural matrices of the end product application. Strawberry flavors created for a yogurt are under very different scrutiny than say a strawberry created for a juice, a lollipop, or salad dressing. Before even getting started, a flavorist first needs to understand which type of strawberry best suits the customer, product, and brand. Are they looking for a wild strawberry, a perfectly ripe strawberry, or maybe more of a strawberry jam type? Breaking down a flavor into its chemical parts is just the beginning of creating a ‘natural’ flavor. To capture that wonderful lusciousness of a real juicy strawberry, you’re going to need some Furaneol®, a little Ethyl Butyrate, and of course, CIS-3-Hexanol. When the ingredient deck on your strawberry food or beverage lists ‘natural flavor,’ know that no strawberries were harmed in the creation of that product.
The ‘natural’ is only as ‘natural’ as the chemical properties of the one that is grown in a garden having a one-to-one match in composition, chemically speaking, to the one created in a lab. If they’re the same, it’s a natural. As long as the ingredient ultimately evokes a “flavor” response that is more complete for the consumer by involving stimulation of multiple sensory modalities and does in fact, taste closer to nature.