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The taste makers
Love those sour cream and onion crisps or that new salty toothpaste? There’s a flavour factory behind it
From the minty bubble gum you pop into your mouth to your favourite new flavour of crisps or even that natural ice cream that you tuck into every weekend, they are all the result of some complex equation of ethers and flavours created in a laboratory by young men and women. These people who make sure the apple juice tastes apple-y enough and the cheese balls cheesy enough are flavour chemists or, in industry parlance, flavourists. This is a hush-hush world where identities are hidden and formulae guarded zealously. In fact, flavourists don't even get credit for what they create. "You're not allowed to go through the grocery store and say, 'I created that, " laughs S Ramu, vice-president (technical-flavours ) at International Flavours & Fragnances India Pvt Ltd. "People don't even know we exist, " he points out.
Flavourists are ethically bound never to reveal their creations. Why? Because that's the way food manufacturers want it.
Secret flavour formulas are often the bread and butter of F&B manufacturers that hire flavour houses to innovate or improve their products. It's the formula that separates Nestle's Maggi Hot & Sweet from Kissan's or FritoLays' Sour Cream and Onion from Bingo's.
If you think your nose is as sharp as a dog's and your tongue can tell degrees of sourness apart, then this is what you should think of doing. "You could be a brilliant student but that doesn't mean you would make a good flavourist. To determine whether you can be one, you have to go through a sensorial test, " says Ramu.
A basic taste test looks at whether a candidate can identify sweetness, bitterness, sourness, saltiness, pungency and umami in food/ drinks where they are present in very low quantities. "Most people confuse salty and sour, " points out Ramu. This is followed by another test where the concentration is increased and candidates have to identify the concentration of flavours. The final step feels like a game of 'what's the word'. "Finally, we test their ability to identify familiar aromas and express them through a descriptive term. Flavour language is just as important, " says Ramu, who has been with the New York-headquartered IFF for 37 years.
If you pass all those tests, that's when the toughest part begins. You can't afford to have a blocked nose or sore throat - so basically no sick days. You can't smoke or harbour any other addictions and should avoid fatty and spicy food. And the best work is always done in the morning - hungry. No wonder then that there are just about 500 good flavourists in the world.
"It is not uncommon to walk past a conference room in our office and see people drinking from rows of small tasting cups or see a group trying numerous types of chewing gum for several hours That's a lot of smelling and tasting, " says Ramu.
Developing a flavour usually begins with a brief given by the marketing team that asks the flavourists to develop flavours that are trending. For example, there were over 100 kiwiflavoured product launches in the first three months of the year alone. "We were asked to focus on that flavour since there was a demand for it internationally, " Ramu explains.
Though flavours like green tea, blueberry and pomegranate have picked up in India, the Indian palate is still pretty predictable, according to Ramu. "Within savoury, it's masala, tomato and the dairy bucket ie cheese while amongst fruity or sweet flavours, it's mango, orange and lemon. Also aspirational flavours like sour cream and onion do well. " He also hints at flavours like dragon fruit and star fruit becoming big over the next few months.
All giants like PepsiCo, Coca Cola, Nestle use the services of flavourists and the search is always for a unique product. "The focus is on developing sensorial experiences with an emotional connect. We have to build a like into a craving, " says Ramu, as he offers us two pieces of green apple candy, one which is sweet and the other sour. Different people respond to flavours differently. And the flavourists' job is to convert even the most unpalatable taste into a pleasant experience, much like an artist.
This is where the science bit comes in. Flavourists work with different flavouring ingredients - including natural materials like essential oils and botanicals and synthetic elements or manmade chemicals based on natural starting flavours. "We work with molecules but these molecules have notes like green, fruity, salty, tangy, bitter, etc, " Ramu explains.
Where chemicals do differ, maybe, is in their pliability and availability. Vanilla is the most popular flavour in the world, but it may also be one of the most difficult to replicate. The same flavour will behave very differently depending on the delivery system, meaning that the vanilla in Nilla Wafers may not work in Frenchvanilla pudding mix, vanilla-bean ice cream or vanilla-flavoured toothpaste.
Sometimes all you need is a couple of flavours and a few ingredients and it's a question of simple blending. Most flavours are made with 20 to 60 ingredients, though a select few require more than 100 ingredients. For example, flavourists at IFF may be able to piece together a strawberry flavour in a day. But it might not be the right strawberry. The success of the strawberry depends on the client's idea of what will translate into consumer likability: It could be jammy, or tart, or more of a fantasy strawberry, like the kind in chewy candies that don't taste like strawberries at all. The process of how one arrives at this taste profile is fascinating.
"We would buy the fruit from the market, taste it and describe the flavour. Then create the flavour profile in the lab, add sugar syrup to it, keep modifying it. Once we're happy with it, we will ask the application team to use it in a product. Normally it would take us two weeks to give the client options and prototypes which they then try with customers, " Ramu says.
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