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How You Can Taste Food Like A Flavor Chemist

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May 27, 2024
How You Can Taste Food Like A Flavor Chemist

“Natural flavors” show up on ingredient lists for all kinds of foods. But what does that mean exactly? We get a peek into the secretive science of flavoring when we talk with Marie Wright of ADM, who’s created more than 1,000 flavors in her 30-plus years as a flavor chemist. She explains how natural flavors are made, why lemon flavor doesn’t contain lemon juice, and why flavoring plant-based burgers is so hard. Then she walks Dan through a series of experiments to teach him to taste food the way she does. Plus, Marie responds to criticism about the rise of natural and artificial flavors in processed foods, and their role in the obesity epidemic.

Here are instructions for how to do the experiments at home:

Experiment 1: 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 2: 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 3: 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.

This episode originally aired on June 26, 2020, and was produced by Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, and Andres O’Hara. It was edited by Tracey Samuelson and mixed by Jared O’Connell. The Sporkful team now includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O’Hara, Nora Ritchie, and Jared O’Connell. Publishing by Shantel Holder and transcription by Emily Nguyen.

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
  • "Out To Lunch" by Chris Bierden
  • "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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