Inside the Food Labs

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"We'll have someone say, 'It's too spicy,'" Hsieh says. "And you're thinking, It's sour cream and onion. What are you talking about? You have to interpret because they're not flavor experts."

The Strawberry Statement
Finally, as every food manufacturer knows, it's important to admit when you're licked. Sometimes a flavor simply defies duplication. At that point, it's time to call in the big guns from the big flavor houses. For a foodmaker looking for flavor help, the place to go is New Jersey. Commercial sailing vessels returning from the Far East used to unload their cargoes at the New York docks, and the spices and essential oils were sent to storage facilities in New Jersey. When technology made manufacture of synthetic flavors possible, the spice houses were in the best position to capitalize on the new science. Among the biggest of the flavor bigs is International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), which has one of its global labs in Dayton, N.J.

IFF's plain headquarters, housed in an unremarkable industrial building in an unremarkable industrial park, belies the extraordinary things the company can do. Specialists here can duplicate almost any imaginable flavor, using technologies like gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. The principle behind the science is deceptively simple.

A sample of a food item — a strawberry, for instance — is burned at high speed and high temperature in a gas chromatograph, reducing it to its constituent elements. The resulting vapor is then channeled to a spectrometer, through which the strawberry molecules stream in order of weight and size. Because the scientists know the measure of the molecules they ought to see in food, they can interpret peaks and valleys on a readout and identify all the components as well as their concentrations. Eliminate the ones that have nothing to do with flavor, and you're left with a perfect schematic of the stuff that makes the strawberry taste the way it does. Using the same chemicals, you can then rebuild that flavor in the lab. "It may take a month to do it right," says IFF senior flavorist Kevin Miller.

Just how you choose which foods you burn in your chromatograph can make a difference too. A small strawberry may taste different from a plump strawberry; a just-ripe one will taste different from one that has gone pulpier and sweeter. For subtler flavorings, technologists may not want to touch the fruit at all, instead simply sampling the volatile gases it gives off. IFF scientists sometimes place a glass shroud around a carefully cultivated plant in a field or greenhouse, draw off the sweet, rich air with a syringe and use that as their flavor template. "It gives you a completely different flavor from what you'd get if you cut into the fruit," says Miller.

Once IFF's analysis labs are done taking the measure of a food and rebuilding its flavor, those flavors are sent out to other labs in the building to determine how they hold up in food products. In the dairy department, flavors are tested in ice creams, puddings and — most challengingly — yogurt. "Yogurt is a very dynamic system," says food technologist Dan O'Brien. "You start off one flavor at the beginning of the product's shelf life and get a very different one at the end." In the bakery department, the scientists fret over how flavors hold up when food is placed in an oven. "The flavor may be great in the lab," says O'Brien's colleague Brian Kelly, "but when we throw a little heat on it, adjustments may have to be made."

Sweeter! Hotter!
It's in the world of candy, however, that the challenges and rewards are potentially greatest — if the manufacturer can come up with something that appeals to the biggest flavor consumers of all: kids. "Children, on average, prefer 60% more flavor in foods than adults do," says O'Brien. This is no surprise to their parents, who once loved consuming now-classic candies like Red Hots and Atomic Fireballs. But what's on the market today is not your daddy's candy.

Nestle does an especially good job of marketing to kids, particularly those from 8 to 12--the so-called tween group. Tweens enjoy such venerable tongue busters as SweeTarts and Laffy Taffy as well as such newer offerings as the Wonka candy line or the souped-up SweeTarts Shockers. The Shockers are ultrasour SweeTarts in a chewy fruit base that may be unpalatable to parents but are catnip to their kids. Young consumers also like it if candies have what manufacturers call play value. SweeTarts Gummy Bugs offer all the flavor punch of ordinary SweeTarts, with the added value of coming in insect shapes. "First you see all the colors running together on the candy, and that's a lot of fun," Nestle's Nicole Ifcher says. "Then you decide how you're going to eat it. Do you bite the head off? Then you put it in your mouth, and the sugar sanding signals something sour, but you have the chewy texture underneath."

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