Last month, while nerding out on seltzer with Rachel Ward and Travis Larchuk, we talked about an ingredient you see in most seltzers: “natural flavors.” That’s exactly how it’s listed on the label. So when Travis asked us to find out what natural flavors really are, we accepted the challenge.
And a challenge it is, because there are only a few hundred flavorists in the world, and most of them don’t talk about their work. But we found one person who does: Marie Wright, vice president and chief global flavorist at ADM Nutrition. She’s been a flavor chemist for 30 years and has created over 1,000 flavors.
In this episode, Marie explains what natural flavors are and how they’re made. She tells us why natural lemon flavor doesn’t contain any lemon juice, and how natural flavors can beef up a plant-based burger. We also discuss natural and artificial flavors in processed food, and what effect those flavors might have on the obesity epidemic.
Then, we learn how to taste food like Marie does, using a kit of powders and scent vials that Marie whipped up in her lab. Here are instructions for how to do the experiments at home!
Experiment Number One: Berry Magic
A glass of milk
A glass of water
Crush two strawberries. Put one in the glass of water, and stir until the strawberry is incorporated; do the same with other strawberry and the glass of milk. First smell the strawberry water, then the strawberry milk. Notice the differences in smells, and which parts of the strawberry scent feel stronger in the milk or in the water.
This experiment reveals how different flavors interact with different substances. The fat of the milk mutes some of the flavors of the strawberry, and the water keeps most of the flavors intact.
Experiment Number Two: The Flavor Skeleton
Pinch your nose tightly, take a bite of the strawberry, and while chewing it, release your nose.
Notice how the flavor of the strawberry changes once you release your nose. When you can’t smell, it greatly reduces your ability to taste the strawberry. Also, you may notice that the taste in this experiment is slightly different than the taste when you just eat a strawberry. Flavors have many different components, and this experiment isolates just some of the components, particularly the ones that you smell as aroma moves up the back of your throat into your nose. When flavorists make a rough guide of a flavor, but don’t match it exactly, that’s called a skeleton.
Experiment Number Three: The Flavor Known Round The World
Whole or ground nutmeg
Lay out all the ingredients. First smell the citrus slices together. Then smell the cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. Then smell the vanilla. Notice how each smell invokes a different feeling, and maybe even a different sense memory. The citrus is refreshing, the cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg are warming, and the vanilla is calming.
Now, put all of the items together on a platter, and waft them in front of your nose.
After a while, you might get a scent of something very different. At the end of the episode, we reveal exactly what that scent is.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Sun So Sunny" by Calvin Dashielle
- "Beep Boop" by Dylan Myers
- "Birthday Party" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Sugar and Spice" by Hayley Briasco
- "Rooftop Instrumental" by Erick Anderson
- "Slightly Carbonated" by Erick Anderson
- "Bandstand Extended" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Talk To Me Now" by Agasthi Jayatilaka
- "Happy Jackson" by Ken Brahmstedt
Photos courtesy of ADM Nutrition and Dan Pashman.
Dan Pashman: I read an interview with you. You were asked, "Do you have any quirky pleasures?" And you said, "I love the smell of kitten pee because it reminds me of black currant." Do you still love the smell of kitten pee?
Marie Wright: As long as it's not mixed with poop, then it's not so nice. There are certain notes that you might smell. But, yes, you know, I like very strong, sulphury notes. So there are certain kinds of animalic notes that are really interesting.
Dan Pashman: It occurs to me that you probably smell and taste foods in a way that's different from most people.
Marie Wright: Yeah, probably.
Dan Pashman: Because most people, if they go to change their cat litter box, are not, like, "Mmm black currant."
Marie Wright: No, they don't. But I tend to keep those thoughts to myself. I don't want to be locked up for being quirky.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman, each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Hey we got a lot of great responses to our Bon Appetit episode. Thank you so much for that. And if that was your first time listening to The Sporkful, welcome aboard. And I want you to know that we’re gonna continue to follow the developments at BA. We will be doing an update in a few weeks. Overall, as I’ve said, our plan here is to continue doing what we’ve been doing for a long time, which is that some weeks our show will veer more towards escapism. Other weeks we’ll use the lens of food to have difficult conversations about what’s happening in the world. We hope you’ll continue to join us.
Dan Pashman: Okay, let’s get into it. Last month we did a show where we nerded out on seltzer. That was more one of the escapist ones. We looked at the science of carbonation and compared some of the big brands. We also talked about one of the most common ingredients in seltzer, natural flavors. That’s literally what it says on the label: natural flavors. Nothing more. And we had questions. One of our guests in that episode was Travis Larchuk, co-host of the podcast Seltzer Death Match. I asked him, "If we could track down a flavorist, what would you want to know?"
CLIP (TRAVIS LARCHUK): She's got to tell us what the natural flavors are. Because nobody is talking about it. Why is it such a secret? What are you afraid of?
Dan Pashman: So think of this episode as a companion piece to that one. We want to know: What are natural flavors, and more importantly, how are they created?
Dan Pashman: Now it’s true, the work of flavorists often takes place behind closed doors. The recipes they develop are closely guarded secrets. A 2009 New Yorker article about the flavor industry says, “There are fewer than five hundred flavorists in the United States, and they almost never speak about their work outside their laboratories.” Well, we managed to find one of the few flavorists who’ll talk. Her name is Marie Wright, and she’s Vice President & Chief Global Flavorist at ADM Nutrition. ADM is Archer Daniels Midland, the multibillion dollar agricultural company. Marie’s been a flavor chemist for 30 years. We’ll get to natural flavors in a bit. But first, we wanted to find out how she got into this work.
Marie Wright: I'd grown up with a untraditional English background because my father was Turkish, my mother half-Italian. So our food was delicious and not the....
Dan Pashman: That’s the non-traditional part you are referring to?
Marie Wright: Yes, exactly. And also growing up spending time in the south of France. So the perfumery industry was very strong in the south of France. So I was very aware of the industry. Perfumery was probably what I was first attracted to.
Dan Pashman: So early in her career, Marie worked with perfumers but she didn’t love that it’s so subjective, not as scientific. You know, there’s no single right way for a human to smell, so you can kinda do anything. Marie made the turn to food.
Marie Wright: I love the science of flavor and flavor chemistry. And I love the fact that when you create a strawberry, for example, or lemon or whatever it is that it— you have a gold standard because you know what a strawberry tastes like or a lemon tastes like. So I think, at that analytical part of my soul, kind of overrid, if you like the creative side.
Dan Pashman: Marie studied Food Science and Chemistry and King’s College, in London. She worked her way up the ranks of the flavor industry in Europe, eventually becoming chief global flavorist at the natural ingredient company WILD Flavors. It was acquired by ADM in 2014.
Dan Pashman: When you've been working on developing a flavor for days, and I'm sure sometimes it's weeks or months or even years, what does it feel like the moment that you know you got it?
Marie Wright: You do feel pretty good. But I think it's like any artist, you never quite feel you get there. You know, you know something's really good. Maybe it's even excellent. Maybe it's even the best truffle flavor you've ever smelt in your life. But you do get to a point, that you’re saturated, that you're really tired of smelling it and tasting it. And you leave it, come back. You know, you think you've finished it. It's great and then you leave it, come back, you know, you think you've finished it. It's great. You come back a month later and you're like, what was I thinking?
Dan Pashman: Flavorists work with over 8,000 different ingredients and dozens of different methods. Marie says her work area looks like a kitchen, but her tools go way beyond frying pans and spatulas. She's got lab equipment like glass beakers, balances, and instruments that identify the molecular components of ingredients . Over her 30 years as a flavor chemist, she’s created more than a thousand flavors.
Marie Wright: I've worked on everything probably. And I mean everything.
Dan Pashman: Marie’s done chips, coffee, string cheese, seltzer, of course. The list goes on and on. She’s also worked on some less obvious products that present unique flavors and challenges, like toothpaste, which wasn’t her favorite.
Marie Wright: In some ways it's a little bit limiting because you see some fruit flavored toothpaste. But they're really not the big sellers. So it's really all about mint, wintergreen. But it's making something that, you know, also has the right sensations in your mouth: the cooling, the tingling, the feeling that it's cleaning.
Dan Pashman: And so you've also worked on pet food?
Marie Wright: Yes.
Dan Pashman: That's got to be an odd one because you're flavoring the food like the pets are eating it, but you've got to get the owners to buy it.
Marie Wright: Yeah, I mean, pets will really probably eat almost anything. Right?
Dan Pashman: Right, and then there's that. So, like, well, what's your approach when you're making pet food?
Marie Wright: So, we laugh about it because you're essentially really making something that the owner will find attractive for the pet. It doesn't mean that they think, "Oh, this smells delicious. I want to eat it myself." It's not about that. But it is about how they feel that it's good enough for their pets.
Dan Pashman: Marie can’t tell us which brands she’s worked with. That’s proprietary. But many companies work with ADM to develop custom flavors. Maybe it’s the lime powder to go on lime tortilla chips. Or maybe it’s a seltzer company that says, "We want to make passionfruit seltzer. So we need a passion fruit flavor." The company may have parameters, like it can’t contain sugar or artificial flavors. It must have below a certain number of calories. ADM creates that flavor within those parameters and they actually own the flavor and license it exclusively to the client.
Dan Pashman: In all her work, Marie says one group of flavors reigns supreme: citrus. Across regions of the globe, across many of the world’s cuisines, people love citrus. Orange is the most popular flavor in the world. Marie says that’s because citrus is refreshing and emotionally connected to happiness. And of course, citrus is huge in the sparkling water business. Which brings us to the reason we wanted to talk with Marie in the first place. To figure out what the natural flavors in seltzer are, and how they’re created.
Marie Wright: You know, most of the citrus that we used is actually derived from citrus oil. So the oil is in the peel and then the peel is pressed, cold pressed. And then you get what you call like a single-strength oil.
Dan Pashman: Problem is, the oil doesn’t dissolve in water. So Marie concentrates it to remove the terpenes, which are the organic compounds that prevent it from dissolving. But even once Marie has extracted the oil and concentrated it, the natural flavor isn’t ready yet.
Marie Wright: Those extracts really don't have enough concentration and enough taste to deliver. So you use other ingredients. You could use a blend of what we call absolutes, distillates, extracts.
Dan Pashman: So if you’re making a lemon flavor, things like jasmine, or lavender, could be added to improve it. Now the reason Marie uses lemon oil, instead of lemon juice, is that lemon juice doesn’t hold up well over time. The lemon juice oxidizes, which makes it taste kinda off after a while. Remember, you could be drinking your lemon seltzer 6 months after it was put in the can. That flavor’s gotta hold up. Now the FDA rule for natural flavors is basically this: They must come from natural foods or natural processes, like fermentation. You have to start with fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, spices, barks, herbs, etc. Then you put it through a process to extract flavor. That can mean roasting, pressing, distilling, spinning it in a centrifuge. The list goes on.
Marie Wright: So it really depends. I mean, we do use lots of different technologies. We use spinning comb, which is used in the wine industry, you know, to collect tea volatiles, and then we might concentrate them by chromatography.
Dan Pashman: Don’t worry, I got a little lost at some points in the conversation too. Point is, there’s a lot of science involved in building these flavors. As I said to Marie, the fact that people don’t know what natural flavors are, or how they’re made, has led to some skepticism. Why not just list it all on the label? Tell people exactly what’s in there?
Marie Wright: I mean, there's a number of reasons. So the first is that maybe it wouldn't even fit on the label, right? Because you probably got 30 or so components. Nobody wants that long list on the label. The second thing is our formula is IP. We don't have to share that, so we're not going to because it's our intellectual property. I don't think the industry would exist if we weren't able to protect our IP.
Dan Pashman: Still, more and more, consumers are concerned with what’s in their food. Which is why for the past few years, big food companies have been working to simplify the ingredient lists on their labels.
Marie Wright: When we're working with most of our customers, they're wanting what we call kind of clean label.
Dan Pashman: What does clean label mean?
Marie Wright: Kind of an absence of, you know, things like GMO, artificial solvents, artificial ingredients.
Dan Pashman: Side note: The mention of GMOs here is especially frustrating to me. Food writer Michael Pollan said on this show that we should worry more about industrial agriculture in general than about GMOs. He says, GMOs are not the root of the problem. Science guy Bill Nye told us he supports GMOs. He says there’s no way we’ll be able to feed everyone on the planet without them. 90 percent of scientists say they’re safe, but only a third of consumers agree. And I think labeling is a factor in that disparity. When labels brag that a food has no GMOs, regular people see that and think, “Well I guess GMOs must be bad.” Which only incentivizes more companies to put it on their label. Anyway, this trend in labeling and ingredients is now coming up against another trend: plant based meats. They have a real health halo. They’re marketed as better for animal welfare and the environment but plant based meats have come under fire for being highly processed and relying a lot on natural flavors. Marie’s been working on some of those flavors for years. As she explains, they’re crucial to making something that isn’t meat, taste like meat.
Marie Wright: Well, protein's tough anyway because it loves to latch on to flavor and absorb it, but the proteins themselves innately have some off notes associated with them, whether it's soy, whether it's pea or bean or whatever the protein source.
Dan Pashman: But like, I love peas and I love beans. And yet sometimes I will have a plant based burger that tastes kind of not great. So what's happening there? Because those base ingredients are things that I like. You can give me plain peas and I'll be very happy.
Marie Wright: Oh, yes. But you are not extracting out the protein from the peas, so it's to concentrate the protein, so it concentrates perhaps the notes you wouldn't like in peas, you wouldn't like. So it's the concentration of the protein.
Dan Pashman: So plant based meats are still a work in progress. But Marie is convinced they’re only gonna get bigger.
Marie Wright: Had a joke with my boss, and I had to leave a call to go and taste plant based shrimp. And he's like, "Oh, how how was that?" And I said, "Oh, it was the taste of money."
Dan Pashman: How's plant based shrimp come in? Is that in the pipeline?
Marie Wright: Oh, absolutely. Yes.
Dan Pashman: Wow.
Marie Wright: You know, seafood and everything is everything's a go at the moment. People are very open to trying all of these types of products.
Dan Pashman: Last year, John Mackey, the co-founder and co CEO of Whole Foods, talked about plant based meat. And he said, "If you look at the ingredients, they are super, highly processed foods. I don't think eating highly processed foods is healthy. I think people thrive on eating whole foods." What's your take on that?
Dan Pashman: Coming up, we’ll hear Marie’s response. And I’ll ask her whether she thinks her work is contributing to the rise in obesity. Then later, Marie teaches us how to taste the way she tastes, when we do a flavor experiment that you’ll be able to do at home. Don’t worry, it won’t involve kitten pee. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Next week on the show I talk with writer Kiese Laymon. His award-winning memoir, Heavy, focuses on his relationship with his mother and his relationship with his body.
CLIP (KIESE LAYMON): You know my mother, she policed my food a lot, my intake. And so part of me eating a big ass jar of peanut butter or those pear preserves of one, it tasted good and it wasn't something she wouldn't have let me do. So I thought I was fighting back against her because I was just like eating all of it.
Dan Pashman: Kiese grew up as a fat kid in the south. And he continues to be shaped by the experience of being black in America. His book weaves together all these themes:
CLIP (KIESE LAYMON):It’s just a conflation of all these things. And as artists, we’ve gotta be able to talk about it all at once because it always happens at once. And food to me is a paradox away to get into all of the mess of what we are.
Dan Pashman: That’s next week. If you don’t want to miss that one, or our special Bon Appetit update episode, please take a minute right now to subscribe if you listen in Apple Podcasts. If you use Spotify, hit follow. If you use Stitcher, favorite. This will make sure you get those upcoming episodes, and it helps other people discover our show. Go ahead you can do it right now while you’re listening. Thanks.
Dan Pashman: Now let’s get back to my conversation with flavorist Marie Wright. We were talking about plant based meats. I read her a quote from John Mackey from Whole Foods, who said plant based meats are highly processed and therefore not healthy.
Marie Wright: They are highly processed, to, obviously, make the nutrients accessible and to also create a meat analog. To say it's not healthy, I don't think that really has any science behind it. Natural doesn't necessarily—forget natural flavors but natural, the word, doesn't necessarily mean safe. So, for example, something like nutmeg, which we use in cooking and we think is just a nice natural spice, actually contains myristicin, which is a carcinogenic compound. You probably use parsley. That contains components that again, are toxic. I think people have a misconception that they think that anything that grows or whatever you could, you could possibly eat and that it's all safe. It really isn't.
Dan Pashman: Couple of things to add: First, nutmeg and parsley are just fine in the small amounts most people eat them in. But I get Marie’s point. There are plenty of things in nature that can make you sick. And the cure may be something UNNATURAL: like, modern medicine. It’s just not so simple as natural good, unnatural bad. Same thing with processed foods. I mean, cooking is a process. If you cook your food before you eat it, by the official USDA definition, you’re eating processed foods. So not all foods put through any process are bad for you.
Dan Pashman: The Harvard School of Public Health draws a distinction between processed, and ultra or highly processed. They say you cross that line when you add artificial colors and flavors, and preservatives. Their website says, quote, “It is speculated that these foods are designed to specifically increase cravings so that people will overeat them and purchase more. Examples are sugary drinks, cookies, some crackers, chips, etc.” So there are valid concerns about highly processed foods.
Marie Wright: I understand that there's that kind of skepticism about what we do. And I know people hide behind it, but I don't hide behind it. You know, I'm talking to you, and I think we all enjoy a lot of foods that flavors’ added to, that you wouldn't have access to unless we made it taste good.
Dan Pashman: Well, so, like we hear a lot of talk about the concerns about obesity. And I certainly believe any problem that is as big as the obesity problem can't possibly only have one cause, even though people like to find one villain or scapegoat and blame someone. But one of the ideas out there is that part of the problem is that flavorists have gotten so good at making things taste so good, that it's very hard to stop eating them when you should. What do you make of that idea?
Marie Wright: You know, I find that one such a hard one because is it the flavor or is it the product itself? I'm just thinking of things like the crunch and the saltiness. I mean, I think obesity is a very complex issue. And it's partly education. It's partly access to great food, right?
Dan Pashman: Last year, a highly controlled study came out from the National Institutes of Health. Two groups of people were offered meals with the same number of calories overall, same amount of fat and sugar, protein, fiber, all that. But one group got those nutrients from ultra-processed foods and the other got them through unprocessed or minimally processed foods. The participants could eat as much or as little as they wanted. The study found that people who got the ultra processed foods ate more quickly, ate more calories and gained more weight, even though again, the processed and unprocessed meal options contained the same amount of calories, carbs, sugar, etc.
Dan Pashman: There is some evidence, good evidence, that suggests that processed foods, highly processed foods, are one part of the issue.
Marie Wright: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: Do you ever worry that in your work, you're somehow contributing to that?
Marie Wright: So obviously, I don't want to make, personally, don't want to make anybody obese. I don't think anybody wants to, you know, through their work make somebody ill. I think there's more to it. I do think it's a complex issue. I think as an industry, we should be focused on nutrition and providing nutritional value through foods. Now, I think it's changing, honestly. Do I feel like I'm some participant in that? I think in my heart, I'm very happy that the industry's changed that we're moving towards much healthier, smarter food. And I think that's where we want to go. But if you don't participate in it, how can you change it, right? So, you know, we have to influence from within, I think, and to put our dollars, put our research, try and direct. I mean, I'm in a fairly high position in the company, so I have some influence on strategy and where we're going to play. But it isn't always, you know, where you want to play.
Dan Pashman: So those are Marie’s thoughts on how her work relates to obesity and health. At this point I wanted to turn our conversation back to where we began: to Marie’s unique ability to taste. Because when she’s developing a flavor, yeah, eventually there may be focus groups and market testing. But a lot of it is just her experimenting with samples, deciphering the flavors, determining what’s working in there and what isn’t.
Dan Pashman: There's an old Latin maxim that I cite sometimes here on The Sporkful. de gustibus non disputandum: in matters of taste there can be no dispute. Do you think that's true or do some things objectively taste better than others?
Marie Wright: Oh, I think, honestly, it really is personal preference. It's sometimes country, regional preference. I hate the Concord grape. I hate grape juice and peanut butter and jelly. I can't bear the smell of it. But everybody here loves it. You know, my kids, who have grown up here, it's the most delicious thing.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Marie Wright: It's a treat.
Dan Pashman: Meanwhile, you're slathering Marmite on your toast and everyone's like, "Oh, God Mom. What are you doing?"
Marie Wright: Exactly. What are you doing? Exactly.
Dan Pashman: But Marie says she’s able to separate her own personal likes and dislikes from her work. She’s not looking for the flavor she likes best, she’s looking for the flavor most people will like best. So how is she able to do that? Well she says first, you’ve gotta learn how to taste.
Marie Wright: So, for example, if you had oysters for the first time, which I remember having oysters for the first time. I was in Paris. I was very excited, a young flavorist in Champs Elysées, and a very sophisticated customer and salesperson having oysters for the first time and they were disgusting. And having to pretend, you know, just gulping them down, thinking, "Oh, my God, I'm going to die." Now, you know, and then I had oysters again and again and acquired the taste. So some things you can, I think, you can learn how to taste. You can learn to taste them.
Dan Pashman: But to be, I mean, to be such a leading person in your field, you must have developed the ability to taste something and kind of know how a gigantic portion of the population is going to react to the way that tastes.
Marie Wright: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: Like you can kind of channel hundreds of millions of palates.
Marie Wright: Yes.
Dan Pashman: That's cool. Right? So how did you learn to be such a good taster?
Marie Wright: Oh, I think I can teach anybody to be a good taster because I wasn't particularly a good taster.
Dan Pashman: Can you teach me?
Marie Wright: Even you. I think I would be able to. You just need 10 years. Do you have 10 years?
Dan Pashman: I didn’t have 10 years, but I did have the rest of this interview. Marie had sent me a package in the mail. It had plastic sticks labeled with different scents. There were jars with powders. These are the kinds of things she uses when teaching people how to be flavorists. Now don’t worry, you can replicate all of the experiments you’re about to hear at home. We’ll put all the info on our website, and you can follow along there. Okay, here we go. Experiment Number One: Berry Magic.
Marie Wright: You should have two containers, they have exactly the same powder in them.
Dan Pashman: These are two glass containers. They're about the size of saltshakers or spice spice holders, but they're mostly empty. They each only have a tiny amount of a white powder with a slight pink hue to it.
Marie Wright: Yeah. So it's a berry. And what I want you to do is add water to one and add milk to the other and take them to the same level.
Dan Pashman: I filled up each jar, put the lids on, and shook them up.
Marie Wright: Every product that we work with, there’s different interactions between the components of the flavor and the, you know, the nutrients of the flavor. So in this case, we've got water, and in milk, it's the same flavor and it's going to smell a little different.
Dan Pashman: The water one feels a little kind of sharp in a good way. It kind of reminds me of a fruity seltzer.
Marie Wright: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: The milk one, feels a little bit more muted.
Marie Wright: We enhanced two molecules, one is a sisrehexonal, that green leafy note that you smelled. And the other one is actually a violety note, very powdery berry violet notes.
Dan Pashman: Powdery is a good adjective. It's sort of...
Marie Wright: Powdery.
Dan Pashman: It reminds me of a sweet tart.
Marie Wright: Yeah, it's overdone. Yeah, it is like a sweet tart. And then once you put it into a milk base, because of the fat, that sweet tart note really likes to sit in the fat.
Dan Pashman: The takeaway here? The whole taste experience is about more than the flavor Marie develops. It’s also about how that flavor interacts with its surroundings. This berry flavor is very different in milk vs in water. Here’s how you try it at home with fresh strawberries.
Marie Wright: Like, if you crush strawberries and you just, you know, kind of add a little bit of water and taste that, that's very different to if you mix it with some cream, some fat.
Dan Pashman: Can I drink this berry magic?
Marie Wright: I don't think it's gonna taste great.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Marie Wright: But you can if you want. You're not gonna die.
Dan Pashman: It’s got a little bit of a Strawberry Quick kind of vibe to it, but not quite as strong. I kind of like it, though. I think my kids love it.
Dan Pashman: On to Experiment Number Two: The Flavor Skeleton. If you’ve already got your strawberries out, Marie has another experiment for you. Pinch your nose, take a bite of the strawberry and while chewing it, release your nose. Marie walked me through it.
Marie Wright: But until you released, and the aroma hit your brain and your brain said, "Hey, this is strawberry." You actually didn't make a connection until then.
Dan Pashman: What else just happened to me in that experience, though Marie? I do know enough about taste perception to know that there’s a difference between the way you smell through your nose, like through your nostrils, and the way you smell when flavors waft up the back of your throat. Retronasal olfaction. See, I drop a little sciencey term there for you. So because I was holding my nose from the time I took a bite, I didn't get any front of the nose strawberry smell because I was holding my nose. I didn’t release my nose and start breathing through that passage until it was already in the back of my throat.
Marie Wright: There we go.
Dan Pashman: The back of the throat smell, smelled like strawberry candy. The front of the nose smell, smells like strawberry. And what I think that I found is that what I think of as strawberry flavor, like in a Jolly Rancher or in gum or in candy or in anywhere, I always felt like, you know, it's not really like strawberry. It's more like the artificial version of strawberry but now what I realize is that it's actually the back of the throat smell.
Marie Wright: In the strawberry there isn't one component that smells of a strawberry. So we have to blend together things to make it smell of a strawberry. So we call it, like the skeleton. We have to look for the skeleton of what the flavor is.
Dan Pashman: You know how some candies taste vaguely like the fruit, but not exactly like it? That’s the skeleton Marie is talking about. It’s taking some of the components of the flavor, the ones you can replicate, but not all of them. And you can taste that yourself with this pinched nose experiment. I realize now that strawberry flavor in cereal or candy or whatever is actually closer to real strawberry than I thought. I had just never isolated that one part of real strawberry flavor, the back of the throat aroma. It’s very cool to pull these flavors apart and really understand what Marie is going for. Which brings us to Experiment Number Three: The Flavor Known Round The World. That’s where those scent sticks come in.
Marie Wright: But don't stick it up your nose, just smell it.
Dan Pashman: Got it, alright.
Marie Wright: Okay. So I want you to smell, first of all, this citrus blend.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Marie Wright: And this is a blend of orange oil, lemon oil and lime. Citrus has an emotional connection, makes us feel happy, refreshed. So that's the first one I wanted you to smell. The second one would be the spice bend. So that's the darker, the darker brown: nutmeg clove, very nostalgic, you know, very warm, reminding us perhaps of, like family holidays, Thanksgiving, that kind of thing. And then the last one, the light tan one like kind of beige-y, vanilla, you know, smells very relaxing. So you think about these three things. We've got the refreshing citrus, nostalgic spice, and then we have the relaxing vanilla. Now, I want you to kind of take the three of them in your hand and waft them in front of your nose. So now they're all mixed together.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Marie Wright: What is it? Does it remind you of anything? Anything familiar?
Dan Pashman: This feels strange, but like it almost it almost smells like bubbly...
Marie Wright: Bubbly. That's a really good...look at you. Texture. Bubbly, I love it
Dan Pashman: When I hold it a little farther from my nose. It smells like soda.
Marie Wright: There we go.
Dan Pashman: This is soda?
Marie Wright: This is cola.
Dan Pashman: Oh, my God. It's cola.
Marie Wright: So it makes you understand why cola is so unanimous in its appreciation across the globe. Because it's a really amazing flavor.
Dan Pashman: It's actually giving me a new appreciation for cola because it's like I always would have thought of it as sort of like a very kind of blunt artificial flavor. But it's actually like rooted in something that's very real. That's so...it's so weird to me that I thought bubbly. It's like my brain made this deep association. I could almost, like, taste carbonation in the back of my throat when I was smelling it even before I exactly placed the smell.
Marie Wright: I was really impressed with that. I honestly think you've got the wrong career going on. You should be working with me.
Dan Pashman: You know, if someone out there is listening to this and they just feel like, I don't know what things taste like. I don't know what tastes good. What are some basic things that people could do to just sort of like develop their palate a little bit, learn how to taste things a little bit better?
Marie Wright: Just start, basically, if you like something, ask yourself, "Why do you like it?" Do you like it because of the sweetness or the saltiness? Kind of start thinking about why. It doesn't...you don’t have to be right. But you start to think about the things you like about a product and things you don't like. I mean, taste is something learned. Making yourself more aware, it definitely leads to a greater appreciation of food.
Dan Pashman: That’s Marie Wright, Vice President & Chief Global Flavorist at ADM Nutrition. And hey, if you don’t know someone who can get you those scent sticks, no problem. You too can recreate the smell of cola with ingredients from the store: slices of lemon, lime, and orange, plus cinnamon, clove, and vanilla. We’ll put the full instructions for home versions of all the experiments you just heard at Sporkful.com. You want to make sure you don’t miss next week’s episode with author Kiese Laymon, or our forthcoming update on the situation at Bon Appetit? Well if you listen in Apple Podcasts, please hit subscribe. If you listen in Spotify, hit follow. If you listen in Stitcher, hit favorite. That way, you'll catch all those episodes and you'll help other people discover our show. Thank you. One more quick request while you’re doing stuff on your phone, please follow me on Instagram. I’m @TheSporkful.