Many consumers would be amazed upon entering a flavor laboratory to see and smell countless brown bottles containing flavor profiles of everything from ripe strawberries to roast beef with gravy. To the non-scientist, it may appear that it takes some sort of wizardry to capture these distinct notes in small bottles and use them to flavor prepared foods.
Food scientists, and specifically flavor chemists, know that flavor science is not magic at all. It is a well-developed science, and an often highly guarded procedure. Creating unique, sophisticated flavors that satisfy consumer palates requires technological advances, research, flavor expertise and even artistry.
Seeking Flavor Sources
Flavors begin with the raw material, capturing the volatiles and essences that it secretly holds inside. Innovative flavors originate from new, unexplored sources. Several flavor houses have traversed not only the earth, but also the universe to find new sources that will entertain and excite consumers.
For example, a Cincinnati-based flavor company annually sends a team of internal scientists and creative experts to unique locations around the world in search of novel scent molecules. The company's most recent TasteTreke took scientists on an exploration through the Central African rain forest. Scientists hovered over the land in a large hot air balloon. When they spotted a flowering or other aromatic specimen, they placed vacuum-driven instruments over it and used micro-extraction techniques to capture the molecular makeup of the substrate. "This is a great way to develop new information and add innovation to flavors," says Bob Eilerman, senior vice president, R&D, and a participant in the company's most recent TasteTrek.
The scientists can calibrate their instruments to capture aromatic information on a time-elapsed basis to harvest volatiles from unique flora at different life cycle periods. The scientists then transport captured data back to the company's U.S. labs and recreate the flavor profiles of the new findings.
The "forét des abeilles" is one of the last unspoiled rain forests in the tropics of Central Africa. It provided the company's research teams from Switzerland and the U.S. with the opportunity to identify never-before discovered organoleptic sensations. They took samples of nearly 200 fruits, flowers, barks, pods and mushrooms, and discovered no less than five new plant species.
The flavor company's analytical teams and flavorists have reconstituted many of the samples, providing a catalog of commercially available flavors suitable for applications from candy to beverages. Examples include "wild onion bark," "drypetus," and "santiria." Some of the flavors are currently used in the Asian market.
Another flavor company, with its R&D facility in New Jersey, has literally left this world to source new flavors. Working in conjunction with the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR) and NASA's Commercial Space Development Center, the company conducted an experiment to examine the effects of microgravity on fragrance production by the "Overnight Scentsation," a miniature rose plant.
The company sent the plant on board NASA Space Shuttle mission STS-95 in 1998. While in space, scientists chemically sampled the flower of the rose plant using the flavor company's proprietary solid phase micro-extraction technique. The process utilizes a special fiber needle placed directly above the bloom of the flower to collect the odorous molecules.
Upon the plant's return to earth, scientists analyzed the samples by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and compared data to the same experiment scientists conducted on earth.
The plant on earth emitted an intense green rose aroma. However, the flower in space had a more floral rose aroma, which was aesthetically pleasing. The findings showed that the three major chemical components of the flower changed dramatically, causing a difference in fragrance.
More research conducted in microgravity may enhance the development of new flavor products. The environment nearly eliminates buoyancy-driven convection and may alter the physiology of certain plants, resulting in new flavors and fragrances.
In addition to seeking new flavor sources, companies are also turning towards technology. Advances in analytical technology, information management, molecular biology, chemosensory science and extraction techniques are leading to new flavors and improved, fresher profiles.
"Analytical technology has continuously grown and improved to the point where we can now detect volatiles present in amounts as low as parts per trillion. We can develop a whole database of flavors where we can analyze peaks under existing peaks," states Eilerman.
Another improvement in flavor science is in the area of information management. "We can start cross-checking all of our work in flavor and application development. Our electronic systems allow us to look and compare the work we have done in the past," says Eilerman. He adds that various industry-related websites with sophisticated search engines allow scientists to seek out and filter information that helps in flavor development.
Molecular biology and research in olfaction and taste will advance flavor science as well. "We have work on taste and smell receptors coming out of universities like Columbia, Rockefeller University and University of California-San Diego. Their work has moved us to understand how taste receptors and molecules interact. An understanding of what happens between molecules in a flavor composition and what happens between that flavor and the entire system will hopefully lead to a whole new generation of higher performing flavors and ingredients," observes Eilerman.
Last December, Kraft Foods, Glenview, Ill., and Senomyx Inc., La Jolla, Calif., announced that they will work together to discover new ingredients that improve and enhance taste using proprietary technology. Senomyx is assembling a technology platform including proprietary chemoreceptors and expression systems involved in the detection, quantification, signal transduction and perception of mediators and modula of taste, olfaction and other sensory modalities.
Innovation in extraction techniques provides improved, fresher flavors. One flavor company uses spinning cone column technology to remove the fresh topnotes of raw materials. "Our unique approach puts the extraction process at the raw material source. This is an advancement in technology," says Dan Wampler, Ph.D., president of the flavor company. "From our standpoint, our approach is novel. We are taking a complete spinning cone column processing plant to where the raw materials are."
In the spinning cone column (a vertical stainless steel cylinder), an inert stripping gas removes, under vacuum, a vapor stream of volatile compounds from liquids or slurries.
The gas for stripping, usually vacuum (low temperature) steam, is fed into the bottom of the column and flows upward, passing across the surface of the thin film of liquid, collecting volatile compounds as it rises. Fins on the underside of the rotating cones induce a high degree of turbulence into the rising vapor stream. This, along with the turbulent, thin film of liquid and the long vapor and liquid path lengths, leads to the highly efficient transfer of volatiles from the liquid to the vapor stream.
The vapor flows out of the top of the column and passes through a condensing system, which captures the volatiles in a concentrated liquid form.
Wampler adds that this efficient extraction method allows the company to capture the freshest notes of raw materials, such as coffee, tea, vegetables and herbs.
With all of these improvements and advancements, it is still important to keep fundamental flavoring principles in mind. "It's all about flavor management," observes Wampler. "Product development processors should focus on flavor management, preserving the flavor in their system. This could mean preserving the natural flavor that is part of the food or optimizing their production by adding flavors late in the process."
Flavor interaction is one example of the important fundamentals that formulators always need to keep in mind when flavoring a product. A Flavor 101 seminar, hosted by an Illinois-based flavor supplier, covers flavor interactions with acids, carbohydrates, lipids and proteins.
Acids provide tartness in products such as beverages. The choice of acid can effect flavor perception. Citric and/or malic acid are commonly used with strawberry flavor; tartaric acid is used with grape flavor. Each acid has its own impact on the overall flavor of the system. The choice of the correct acid or blend of acids and the level at which they are used is important to optimize the flavor impact.
With simple sugars, there is a reduced need for flavor at low sugar levels. At higher levels, the sugar starts to mask the flavor. With complex carbohydrates, there is an increased flavor need because of the increased viscosity. Selective flavor binding also occurs.
The threshold for flavor changes based on the amount of fat present. Fat effects the duration of flavor. For example, skim milk has no fat to hold vanilla flavor, so it emits the strongest vanilla smell and strong vanilla flavor initially when you drink it. The flavor, however, does not linger in the mouth, demonstrating the difficulty in flavoring no-fat products.
Proteins will bind flavor molecules, making them unavailable for consumers to taste. Denatured proteins have the highest level of binding. This is the reason why many protein drinks are in powder form.
"Sweet spices" such as cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg, and extracts such as vanilla are moving up the menu from desserts to the main course, while savory flavors such as rosemary and basil are infiltrating the dessert tray, according to McCormick & Co. Inc. Rosemary has a sweet, outdoorsy-fresh aroma that is a natural partner to citrus flavors in both sweet and savory foods. Cinnamon, known for its familiar red-hot flavor balanced by its woody and sweet notes, now accents the flavor of meats, poultry and vegetables. As a member of the mint family, thyme's minty green flavor is a natural flavor for desserts. Examples include cinnamon-thyme poached pears and lemon rosemary pound cake.
New Product News predicts artichoke and Mediterranean to be the two popular flavors for 2001. With advances in flavor science, formulators can meet these trends and even conjure up trends of their own. PF
SIDEBAR: Organic FlavoringsThe Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Assoc. (FEMA) successfully petitioned the USDA to permit the use of natural flavors in organic food. Food processors can use natural flavors in foods bearing organic labels, except for foods labeled as "100 percent organic," which do not allow the use of any flavor. In addition, there are some limits on the type of natural flavor allowed.
The final rule provides in part: "The following nonagricultural substances may be used as ingredients in or on processed products labeled as 'organic' or 'made with organic specified ingredients or food group(s)' only in accordance with any restrictions specified in this section. (a) Nonsynthetics allowed: (9) Flavors, nonsynthetic sources only and must not be produced using synthetic solvents and carrier systems or any artificial preservative." For more information, download the entire rule at http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop.