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How To Taste Food Like A Flavor Chemist

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Jun 27, 2020
How To Taste Food Like A Flavor Chemist

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
Orange slice
Lime slice
Lemon slice
Cinnamon sticks
Whole or ground nutmeg
Vanilla bean

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.

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