Why not Iguana?

Flavor: The Science of Our Most Neglected Sense - Bob Holmes 2017


Why not Iguana?

When Bob Sobel’s kids were little, they would sometimes run up to a strange man in the grocery store and hug his leg, saying, “Hi, Grandpa!” Eventually, Sobel figured out the reason for the error: Their mental sketch of “Grandpa” consisted of gray hair, glasses, and a beard—and anyone who satisfied those criteria, they figured, must be Grandpa. It didn’t take many failures before Sobel’s kids upgraded their sketch, of course, but he has always remembered how little information they needed at first to leap to their conclusion.

It’s a lesson Sobel—no relation to Noam Sobel of the chocolate-soaked string—puts to use every day in his job, as vice president for research at FONA International, a company in the business of creating flavors for the food industry. Designing flavors is largely a matter of finding a way to sketch a chemical likeness—a caricature, if you will—of reality. Case in point: Sobel likes to give people a fresh apple and a Jolly Rancher green-apple-flavored hard candy. “Which one has more chemicals?” he asks. Most people assume that it’s the patently artificial Jolly Rancher. But nature is made of chemicals, too. The real apple, in fact, contains at least twenty-five hundred different flavor chemicals, while the Jolly Rancher has precisely twenty-six. What makes the flavor industry possible is that our mental image of “apple flavor” doesn’t require all twenty-five hundred chemicals. “Just like our picture of Grandpa, it’s going to pick out a few,” says Sobel. That’s exactly what Jolly Rancher has done with their apple candy. “It has enough information to give you the apple. The goal of flavor chemists is not to duplicate exactly all 2,500 flavor chemicals that nature uses. It’s to re-create the impression.”

Sobel is explaining all of this in his well-modulated, gently sibilant voice in an auditorium at FONA’s headquarters in Geneva, Illinois, a bucolic suburb of Chicago. In an industry notorious for its obsessive secrecy, FONA is unique in flinging wide its doors to let the sun shine in. Several times a year they welcome clients, competitors, and the odd hanger-on like me to Flavor 101, a free short course in the workings of the flavor industry.

In the room with me are two chewing-gum developers from Wrigley, people from Butter Buds Food Ingredients (a manufacturer of dairy flavorings), Grapette (a maker of soft drink flavors), and PepsiCo (which needs no introduction). There’s someone from a company that makes vegetarian “meat” products. There are representatives of processed-food makers, pharmaceutical companies, a major liquor company, and a food-packaging company. There are several new hires at FONA itself. And, along with me, one other outsider—an anthropologist studying the food industry.

Sobel’s long face, slightly protruding lower lip, and pleasant smile make him look a bit like a 1980s-vintage TV news host. He has the enthusiastic demeanor of a good high school chemistry teacher, which is what he once was. Back in 1999, his wife suggested he take an outside job during the summer holiday. He ended up working as a flavor analyst at FONA and discovered a world he’d never known of. Entranced, he’s been there ever since.

That’s a sentiment I encountered over and over from professional flavorists. Playing with chemicals to concoct a flavor is a bit magical and a lot of just plain fun. It’s applied chemistry of the most appealing sort. Most chemists work with unpleasant, often toxic substances and go to great lengths to avoid inhaling or ingesting their products. Flavor chemists, on the other hand, do it all the time.

Flavor chemistry is also a big, big business. Flavor companies sell more than $10 billion worth of flavorings every year, and the products that result can be found in nearly every kitchen. Almost every convenience food, almost every processed food, almost every fast-food product relies on added flavorings, both to make the food more appealing and to provide consistency from batch to batch. Flavorings are the reason your favorite bottled spaghetti sauce always tastes the same, even though one batch of tomatoes might be sweeter and more fragrant than the next. Flavorings help your strawberry yogurt taste like strawberry yogurt rather than just yogurt with strawberries in it. Flavorings help diet-food companies keep their products appealing even as they reduce the fat. And, according to some critics, flavorings interfere with our bodies’ natural ability to select a balanced diet, which could make them a key player in the modern epidemic of obesity—a charge we’ll return to later.

The modern flavor industry really began in the 1950s, when chemists developed a tool that let them separate, sort, and identify the individual molecules that make up a flavor. This tool, called a gas chromatograph, separates the molecules by how fast they travel through a long, coiled tube—a speed that depends on the molecule’s size, shape, and electric charge. If the tube is long enough, each kind of molecule will finish at a different time, and a chemist waiting at the end can catch and identify them one by one as they emerge.

Suddenly, flavor chemists had the detailed knowledge they needed to take flavors apart and build them up again, brick by brick, instead of relying on crude extracts of natural products. The design of flavor changed from an arcane art into a quantitative science. As chemists built up their understanding of which molecules contribute which aromas to a flavor—methyl anthranilate smells like grape, gamma-nonalactone like coconut, furfuryl mercaptan like freshly ground coffee—the flavorists’ tool kit exploded in size. Today, a well-equipped industrial flavorist can choose among over seven thousand different molecules and extracts when assembling the components of a flavor.

Learning how they do that is why I’m here in Flavor 101, listening to flavorist Menzie Clarke explain how she puts together a flavor. Clarke is a small woman of Asian ancestry with a broad smile and boundless enthusiasm for her craft. This enthusiasm surfaces in her rapid speech, as her words tumble out half formed, propelled by the pressure of her racing thoughts.

For many flavors, she says, you start with a so-called character compound—a molecule that shrieks out a particular flavor so loudly that it’s almost impossible to build that flavor without it. If you smell amyl acetate, for example, you’ll instantly recognize it as banana. Likewise eugenol and clove, or citral and lemon. If your flavor has a character compound, you’re halfway home already.

Next, you layer on some “top notes,” the up-front quick hits of flavor that burst onto the palate but fade quickly. These lack the immediate recognition of the character compounds, but often deliver a more generic quality. For example, ethyl butyrate delivers a fresh, fruity top note to many citrus flavors. Bottom notes, in contrast, build slowly but linger longer—vanillin is a good example, or the creaminess of delta-lactones—to add fullness to the flavor.

With the skeleton of the flavor in place, you start to think about differentiators, the elements that add subtle highlights to the particular flavor you’re building. If you want a slightly mealy note to an apple flavor, for example, you might add a little tagette oil. If you’d prefer a greener note, use a bit of cis-3-hexenol instead. Add a little furaneol for more of a baked-apple flavor—or add a lot for a candy-apple flavor.

Finally, you pay attention to the balance of the flavor. “You don’t want your flavors to have spikes,” says Clarke. “You want them nice and balanced, a very clean flavor.” Often, that means keeping things simple—but Clarke’s “simple” seems an awful lot like my “complex.” “You don’t want to use more than 30 to 40 flavor components,” she says. “Once you get to more than 40, it gets kind of messy. You wonder if it’s really necessary.”

The process sounds straightforward, but of course the reality is often a lot more complex. Sometimes, for example, key flavor molecules turn out to be very short-lived. A molecule important in the flavor of fresh watermelon, for example, breaks down within thirty seconds of release, so it can’t be used in a commercial watermelon flavor. “Everybody wants to have that fresh watermelon flavor,” says Sobel. “The problem is, you only get that flavor when you actually bite into a watermelon.”

That’s not the only example, either. Short-lived 2-acetylpyrazine provides the ephemeral popcorny aroma in freshly made basmati rice, which flavorists cannot reproduce successfully. The furfuryl mercaptan that makes the character note of freshly ground coffee also vanishes quickly. That’s why the first whiff of a freshly opened can of coffee is so much better than reopening the same can the next morning. (It’s also why coffee tastes so good in a coffee shop—all the grinding and brewing they do ensures a steady infusion of furfuryl mercaptan into the air, where it can enhance your flavor experience.)

The next morning, in Sobel’s office, I ask Clarke if she would talk me through a real flavor formula. I’m not hopeful, because most formulas are closely guarded trade secrets, but Sobel surprises me: He’s able to pull out an example that’s publicly available, a pineapple flavor originally developed by International Flavors and Fragrances, one of the big flavor companies. It’s not too complex, having just sixteen ingredients, so it seems like a good choice for analysis.

Clarke recognizes the flavor as pineapple—even before anyone says the word—because of the presence of allyl caproate, a character compound for pineapple. “If I see allyl caproate in a flavor, I directly go into pineapple mode,” she says. Then Clarke starts to pick apart the rest of the recipe. Ethyl butyrate and ethyl acetate (“the ethyls,” she calls them) supply generically fruity top notes. A set of three acids—acetic, butyric, and caproic—also add bright top notes. Acetic acid, of course, is vinegar. Caproic acid smells a bit goaty, while the odor of butyric acid is often described as “baby vomit.” (Perfumers know that a bit of something nasty—cat pee, for instance—can often add a little depth and complexity to a fragrance; the same is true in the world of flavor. Wine connoisseurs often discern a whiff of cat pee in the aroma of sauvignon blanc wines.)

Next come a couple of chemicals—terpinyl propionate and ethyl crotonate, if you care—that contribute a husky, rindy character to the flavor. These probably serve as differentiators, helping to make this particular pineapple flavor a little different from all the others.

The rest of the flavor formula consists of tiny amounts of several essential oils—oil of sweet birch, oil of spruce, oil of orange, oil of lime, oil of cognac, and others. Instead of being single chemicals, each of these oils is a mix of many different flavor compounds and, as their names imply, are usually extracted from a natural source. “These are to be creative,” says Clarke. Differentiators again, in other words. Some, such as oil of cognac, also supply heavier, lingering bottom notes to the flavor.

But the ingredients list alone isn’t enough to make a flavor. You also need them in the right proportions—and that can be tricky. Should the allyl caproate be 5 percent by weight, or 4 percent or 6 percent? You’ll have to test it to know for sure. And there are other pitfalls, too. Merely doubling the concentration of a flavor molecule doesn’t always double its intensity. Sometimes the quality of the flavor changes instead. Linalool often gives a nice blueberry character at a concentration of .02 percent, for example, but at .025 percent it can lose its blueberryness and take on an unbalanced floral quality—a phenomenon flavorists call “flavor burn.” (This means that food companies can’t just crank up the flavor dial to compensate for an aging population’s fading senses. They’ll need to rebalance every flavor at its new intensity—a much bigger task.)

Flavor 101 was a great way to learn the basics of the flavor industry—but to dig deeper into its intricacies, I needed to get my hands dirty. I headed east on a pilgrimage to the epicenter of flavor.

Cincinnati, Ohio, seems like an unlikely candidate for the flavor capital of North America. It’s an unassuming midwestern city full of unassuming midwestern people of largely German extraction who live in unassuming midwestern two-story brick houses with friendly front porches and well-kept lawns. Gastronomically, its claims to fame are a pork-and-oatmeal breakfast sausage and something called “Cincinnati chili,” which is not chili at all but a cinnamon-spiced meat sauce usually served over spaghetti or hot dogs. Yet just a short drive north from the center of town, you’ll find a nondescript industrial park with several unassuming brick-and-glass buildings that house the U.S. headquarters of Givaudan, the world’s largest manufacturer of flavors.

You’ve undoubtedly tasted some of their flavors. We all have, or at least everyone who’s ever bought a food product other than a raw fruit, vegetable, or meat, or drunk anything other than water, beer, or wine. Givaudan’s flavors show up in soups, soft drinks, cookies, candies, frozen dinners, fast food, and almost any other food product you can think of. Yet you’ll never find their name on the label. Nor will anyone from Givaudan ever let slip the name of any product that uses their flavor. Dr Pepper/Snapple, the giant beverage conglomerate, has a factory right across the parking lot from Givaudan’s facility. Givaudan’s spokesman says it’s entirely coincidental that a drink manufacturer happened to set up shop right next to a flavor developer, but he also can neither confirm nor deny that the company is one of Givaudan’s clients. The level of secrecy involved would make the CIA proud.

I’ve been trying for more than a year to arrange a visit to one of the big four flavor companies, or “flavor houses,” as they’re known in the trade. (Besides Givaudan, the others are Firmenich, International Flavors and Fragrances, and Symrise. The flavor industry also includes a dozen or so middle-tier firms—FONA among them—and dozens of tiny flavor houses, often specializing in a niche market like grape or dairy flavors.) Mostly, it’s been a long, frustrating sequence of unanswered e-mails, unreturned phone calls, and general silence. They just don’t want people to know. Finally, though, I got lucky. Someone I met at a conference knew someone who had just retired from Givaudan, who must have pulled some strings with Jeff Peppet, the company’s communications officer. Suddenly Peppet, who had been ignoring my e-mails and voice mails for months, actually got back to me and offered—O Fortuna!—to arrange a visit. And so, to my astonished disbelief, here I am at last, parking my car and walking in the front door of Givaudan.

In person, Peppet—who appears to be in his midforties, with expensively cut hair—couldn’t be more helpful and welcoming. He’s set up a full day’s worth of interviews for me, spanning a large part of Givaudan’s flavor development work. (He even warned me away from the Cincinnati chili when I asked for dinner recommendations.) But the part I was most interested in was a session with flavorist Brian Mullin, who was going to let me build a simple flavor for myself.

Mullin’s about sixty, with a full head of graying hair; wide thin lips bracketed by deep smile lines; and a firm, friendly gaze. He’s got the slightly raffish demeanor of a favorite uncle who’s always enjoyable. He insists on shaking my hand, even after I mention I have a slight cold, instead of yanking his hand away hastily like every other flavorist I met. (A flavorist with a cold is like a warehouse worker with a bad back—they can’t do their job, and have to fill the time with paperwork.) It’s good to challenge your immune system, he says.

The first step in making a flavor, Mullin tells me, is to be clear about what the client wants. Suppose, for example, that I had come to Givaudan saying I want a strawberry flavor. Well, fine. They already have thousands of strawberry flavors. Do I want a ripe one, a green one, an especially fruity one? Do I want a simple, inexpensive recipe or a costly but more realistic version? The client’s answers to those questions will help determine the right starting point. I think of the best strawberries I’ve ever eaten, the ones I used to buy at the farmer’s market near where I lived in coastal California. The strawberry fields were just down the road, and I’m convinced that the berries that were picked too perfectly ripe to ship ended up in our market. Their fragrance was powerful enough to seduce you from clear across the parking lot. That’s the strawberry I want.

No matter, though. Mullin’s already picked the recipe we’ll use for our demo. He hands me a single sheet of paper with a short list of ingredients. “Mother Nature’s already decided what goes into a strawberry,” he tells me. Of course, no customer could afford to include all the hundreds of flavor compounds found in a real strawberry, nor would they need to. The trick is to pick the key ingredients that will bring our flavor close enough to the real thing, for a price we can live with. For many flavors, you’d start with the character compound: amyl acetate for banana, methyl benzoate for cherry, citral for lemon. But strawberry has no character compound—there is no single molecule that smells like it, so even the simplest strawberry flavor has to be built up from several components, each of which contributes one facet of what we’ll perceive as strawberry. Mullin’s recipe has just four ingredients—simple enough for me to make quickly, but sufficient to clearly sketch out the flavor of strawberry.

Before we go into the lab, Mullin introduces the ingredients to me one by one in his office. The first is ethyl butyrate. He grabs a brown glass bottle off his desk, unscrews the cap, and dips a strip of filter paper into the liquid inside. Then he offers the strip—flavorists call it a blotter—to me to sniff. It has a bright, generically fruity aroma, and it supplies the essential top note of our flavor.

Flavorists sniff a lot of blotters in the course of their work, enough that most of them carry books of blotters in their pockets like smokers carry matches. (Mullin’s still bear the logo of a previous employer, a flavor house he last worked at seven years ago.) Like almost every flavorist who ever passed me a blotter, he warns me not to let it touch my nose as I sniff—a drop of concentrated odorant on the nose is just as disabling to a flavorist as a sprained ankle is to an athlete. There’s also the question of what to do with dipped blotters after smelling, especially if you might want to sniff them again in a few moments. Most flavorists I visited just set the blotters on the corner of the desk, which risks a lot of aromatic contamination of the desk surface. Mullin, however, uses an old hand’s trick of the trade: he creases the blotter with his thumbnail just below the dipped part, so that when I set the blotter down, its moist tip sticks safely up from the desk.

Item two in the recipe is cis-3-hexenol. Mullin dips another blotter and passes it to me. This one smells exactly like freshly mown grass, and adds a green note to the flavor. (Look for that grassy green note the next time you eat a strawberry. You may not have noticed it before, but it’s there.)

Next up is furaneol, which supplies a brown, cotton-candy-like sweet smell characteristic of ripe strawberries. “If you make a strawberry without furaneol, in my opinion, you’ll never sell it,” says Mullin. “The more you put in, the better it is—but there comes a point where you can’t afford it.” Furaneol gives the lingering finish that helps define a good strawberry flavor. “It just carries and carries and carries,” he says.

The fourth and final ingredient in our flavor is gamma-decalactone. On the blotter, it smells a bit peachy. It’s there, Mullin says, to fill a gap in timing: ethyl butyrate hits right up front, followed quickly by cis-3-hexenol, but furaneol’s contribution takes a while to develop. That could leave a hole in the flavor, which the gamma-decalactone fills.

I now have four blotters on the desk in front of me, tips raised off the surface like a family of baby cobras. Following Mullin’s instructions, I gather up all four and waft the bundle under my nose. Presto: strawberry! Not the strawberry of my dreams, the farmer’s market berries from California, but a recognizable strawberry, nonetheless—and further proof, if any is needed, that a skilled flavorist can assemble a flavor that smells nothing like any of its individual components.

Root beer is another good example of this. Once upon a time, as you might guess from its name, root beer was made from an extract of sassafras root. But safrole, the main aromatic oil from sassafras root, turns out to be carcinogenic, and in 1960, the United States banned its use in soft drinks. Root beer manufacturers had to concoct their flavor some other way, and Mullin shows me one option: a top note of methyl salicylate (which smells like wintergreen Life Savers), a middle note of anise-smelling anethol, and a lingering base note of vanillin. Put them together, and it’s unmistakably root beer. It surprised me to learn that root beer’s top note is wintergreen. I’d never noticed that before, and I doubt many others outside the flavor industry have, either. But once you know to look for it, it’s definitely there. (Actually, most Europeans—who didn’t grow up drinking root beer, and thus don’t instantly recognize that blend of flavors—get it right away. Many of them can’t imagine why we drink the stuff in North America, because to them it smells like the wintergreen-scented liniment you rub on sore muscles. “Why would you want to drink something that smells like a rugby locker room?” one Brit asked Bob Sobel on encountering root beer for the first time.)

But enough sniffing. It’s time to hit the lab. Mullin grabs a lab coat off a hook behind his door and gives it to me, along with safety glasses and a handful of plastic eyedroppers. “Let’s go make a strawberry,” he says. We’re making a test-sized batch, the amount a flavorist might produce while tweaking a formula, so the process turns out to be a simple matter of measuring fluids into a beaker. Just a tiny bit of ethyl butyrate and cis-3-hexenol, 0.08 grams of each, which turns out to be somewhere between three and four drops. Mullin suggests measuring those first, so that if I accidentally put too big a squirt into the beaker, I won’t have to discard a large volume of ingredients. Then fifteen grams—about a tablespoon—of urine-yellow furaneol and a squirt of gamma-decalactone. Stir, then dilute with water.

Now it’s time to see what we’ve made. You’ll recall that we sometimes perceive retronasal flavors rather differently from orthonasal smells. As a result, serious testing of a flavor formula almost always happens by actually drinking the concoction—no mere sniffing at this stage. Sipping the flavor, I find it a little disappointing. It doesn’t have the ripe, ripe oomph I was hoping for, and the green note—inconspicuous on sniffing—comes through too strongly in the mouth. The next step, says Mullin, would be to modify the recipe by using a little less cis-3-hexenol and a little more ethyl butyrate next time, to see if that gets closer to my target.

In practice, this trial and error would go on again and again, with repeated taste testing until the client is finally happy with the result. It’s a slow process: Mullin’s assistant can mix up perhaps a dozen formulas in a day, particularly if they’re more complex, so settling on a final flavor could take days or weeks. That makes a custom flavor like this an expensive proposition.

To speed things along, Givaudan has developed ways to automate the process somewhat. Earlier that day, another of their researchers, Andy Daniher, had showed me a suitcase-sized device they call the MiniVAS (for Virtual Aroma Synthesizer) that Givaudan flavorists can take out on house calls. The device has slots for thirty vials containing aroma “keys,” which can be single odorants or complex mixes such as lemon-peel extract or cola flavoring. By moving sliders on a touch screen, users can change the proportions of each key in the mix, then see how the aroma changes. (The Mini-VAS has three output ports shaped like the negative of a nose, so that flavorist and clients can all sniff at the same time.)

“Let’s talk spiced rum,” says Daniher. With a touch of his finger, he starts air bubbling through a rum base. Another touch adds a hint of strawberry to the rum—a terrible idea, we all agree. Two more quick touches and the strawberry is replaced by orange. Much better. “Now you can start to say ’I like this, I don’t like that.’ You can just show what you like about a flavor,” says Daniher. “You can do a lot of flavor-creation work very quickly and zero in to a formula you can compound.” Best of all, the whole thing can be controlled remotely, so that a flavorist here in Cincinnati can collaborate with another flavorist in Asia and a client in London, and all can smell the same thing simultaneously.

For many customers at the large flavor houses, all this analysis may be overkill. They may be able to bypass flavor development entirely—and save a lot of money in the process—by using an off-the-shelf flavor. At Givaudan, these clients end up talking to Laurence Roquet, who manages what the company calls its “portfolio”—a searchable library of previously created flavors. Roquet is French, and she looks it—tall and slender, with bobbed, black hair and a round face emphasized by her huge, round glasses. “Why re-creating the wheels?” she asks, in her fluent but slightly askew English. “Why make another strawberry when you have hundreds of strawberries on the shelves? We have so many flavors, good stuff inside. Why not do that?”

Givaudan’s full portfolio might have one hundred thousand flavors in it, though the core portfolio that they use regularly is around three thousand flavors. Each one of the flavors in that core library is assigned a series of tags that describe the flavor itself (juicy, pithy, and so forth), its possible applications (sweet, savory, cold beverages), and its regulatory status (is it organic, natural, GMO-free, approved for alcoholic beverages). That lets Roquet and her staff quickly pull up a short list of flavors that meet a client’s requirements. Then it’s time for tasting. Often, the client finds a flavor that they’re happy with as is. If not, the portfolio at least suggests the right starting point for further tweaking. About 70—80 percent of Givaudan’s flavor projects start at Roquet’s desk, she says.

Pulling ready-made flavors off the shelf is one end of what you can think of as the innovation spectrum. At the other end, Givaudan also puts a lot of effort—and plenty of cash—into discovering and re-creating new flavors. Often, this involves prospecting in the natural world, looking for fruits, flowers, or other plant parts that offer new flavor molecules to beguile the world’s palates. One favorite source is the botanic garden at the University of California, Riverside, which hosts the world’s largest collection of citrus trees. By sampling fruits in the Riverside collection, Givaudan’s flavorists have found several new citrus flavors, including a sweet lime with just a hint of pepper. “That was nature showing us something we would not have thought about,” says Daniher. Finding these gaps—white spaces on the flavor map, even in a region as well traveled as citrus—is always amazing, he says.

Sometimes Givaudan’s explorers go further afield. Years ago, Peppet participated in an expedition to Gabon, Africa, where Givaudan chartered a blimp to float above the rain forest canopy so that technicians could collect scents from every flower and fruit they could find. Back home, flavorists sorted through it all, looking for elements that they could add to their arsenal of flavor chemicals.

Other times, they don’t have to go far at all. “It occurred to us that we don’t have to go into jungles,” says Daniher. “We can go into restaurants.” Givaudan technicians order up an interesting dish, something with a flavor that they’re interested in replicating. This is what they call their “gold standard”—the real thing, the target flavor they will try to approximate in the lab. The whole order goes into a chamber that captures the aromas rising off the food. Then the technicians analyze this “headspace” to figure out what makes it tick, so that flavorists can find ways to re-create it in their lab.

Daniher opens a vial labeled “kalbi flavor” and hands it to me. It smells just like the grilled meat, redolent with soy sauce and garlic, that’s so delicious in a good Korean restaurant. “What I like about this is you can really smell the fatty, grilled notes,” he says. But this wasn’t extracted from real Korean barbecue—Givaudan’s flavorists have re-created it from individual chemical components to match the headspace analysis. It’s basically the gold standard in a bottle—an almost perfect match, but probably too expensive to be practical as a commercial flavor. Now it’s up to their flavorists to develop a cheaper version that delivers nearly the same effect.

Another project they’re working on is a flavor element that Daniher calls “richness.” “Richness is what you get from slowly cooked foods,” he explains. “We’ve all tasted a great stew that’s been cooking for a long time.” Daniher’s researchers think they now understand which flavor molecules are responsible for this long-cooked flavor. When pressed for more details, Daniher clams up. “Proprietary stuff,” he says. In essence, Givaudan may have isolated the flavors of time, care, and patience. If they’re right, they could be on to something really big.

A job like re-creating Daniher’s kalbi flavor or “richness” is likely to end up on the desk of someone such as Mary Maier at Givaudan. The world of industrial flavor is so broad that flavorists tend to carve out particular corners to specialize in. One person I spoke with had spent a long, illustrious career specializing in sweet brown flavors: honey, maple syrup, cola, and the like. There are fruit flavorists and beverage flavorists, dairy flavorists and candy flavorists. One of the biggest divides tends to be between sweet flavorists and savory ones. Maier, a senior flavorist, is one of the latter. Working in a world of meat flavors is tougher than doing fruit flavors, she says, because the flavors themselves are more complex. “There’s not just one molecule that you smell and say ’Aha!’” she says. Maier is a short, fit woman with straight brown hair down to her shoulder blades, held back by a thin headband. Remarkably, she’s a second-generation flavorist—as a college student, she used to mix up samples for her father, who also worked for Givaudan, and she ended up making a career there herself.

Much of Maier’s work involves riding herd on the Maillard reaction, a complex network of chemical changes that happens during the browning of proteins and sugars. But where you and I typically start our Maillard reactions with a piece of beef or chicken, professional flavorists like Maier often start with protein extracts such as autolyzed yeast extract, or even pure amino acids and sugars, to give better control of their results. Start with the amino acid cysteine and the Maillard reaction proceeds toward chickeny-meaty flavors. Start with methionine and you get something potatoey-cabbagey; phenylalanine gives honeylike flavors or—in combination with the sugar fructose—a flavor that some describe as “dirty dog.” (There’s that paradox again: a little bit of something obnoxious adds interest to a complex flavor.)

We head out into Maier’s lab to taste some flavors. First up is a chicken flavor that one of her customers wants to put into a powdered soup mix. Maier spoons some of the mix into a beaker, adds water, heats it on a hot plate, and offers me a spoonful. I taste onion, celery, and some doughy or grainy stuff from the noodles, but Maier says that’s all irrelevant to the task at hand. Those flavors are part of the customer’s base soup. Her job is the chicken flavor; from her perspective right now, everything else is just noise. Concentrating now on the chicken, I think I get some roasted-chicken notes, but Maier corrects me. What I’m tasting are the astringent, bony, fatty notes of a boiled chicken, not the caramelized brown, sulfury notes of a roasted one. The flavor is not bad, though: she’s getting close to the target she wants.

Next project in her lab is a chicken patty, which will be breaded, prefried, and frozen, then baked at home by the consumer. There’s a version of these already on the market, but the manufacturer wants to change ingredients. Maier doesn’t know why they want to do that—to save money? To use more readily available ingredients? It doesn’t matter. Her mission is to make the new version taste the same as the old one.

So her technicians have whipped up a test batch. There’s a blank—the unflavored chicken nugget, which tastes generically chickeny. There’s the original version, the target. And there’s the test version, with the current version of Maier’s new flavoring. On tasting the test patty, one of the technicians immediately says “That’s extremely strong!” This is the first time they’ve tasted the new flavor on chicken, and it wasn’t as aggressive during earlier taste tests in water—further proof, if any were needed, that there’s no substitute for tasting a flavor in its final setting. Flavorists can’t do their jobs in the abstract.

Maier takes a bite of the target next, and pauses to consider. “I get a precursor in there,” she says. That is, she tastes one of the ingredients in the Maillard reaction that hasn’t fully reacted—a sign that the client’s original Maillard starting point wasn’t quite right. She doesn’t say it aloud, but I can imagine her thinking that whoever designed the original flavor did a sloppy job.

After some discussion, the team agrees that the target also has a more grilled, sulfury-meaty character, while the test nugget is more smoky and livery. The lack of grilled flavor in the test version disappoints Maier. “This is just softer. We’re not getting that impact,” she says. They decide to do another version next week to see if they can get closer to the target. Meanwhile, they’ll also send the target off for analysis, to try to identify the precursor that’s out of whack.

As Maier’s chicken nuggets demonstrate, building a flavor that is balanced and convincing when tasted by itself is only half the job. The context a flavor is used in—that is, the other ingredients in the product, known in the food industry as the “base”—makes a huge difference to the final result. Many fruit flavors, for example, stand out more prominently in a sweet base, because we expect fruity and sweet to go together, and the brain amplifies these congruent stimuli. Similarly, a salty base brings out the savory elements in something like a chicken soup.

Another issue is that many flavors interact physically or chemically with the base. Even something as simple as a thickening agent, for example, can slow down the release of flavor molecules in your mouth, so that a thick drink or sauce would taste blander than a thin one with the same amount of added flavor. A lot of flavor molecules dissolve more easily in fats than in water, so a high-fat food also releases its flavor more slowly and may therefore need a higher dose of flavoring to achieve the same effect. At FONA, Bob Sobel likes to demonstrate this by mixing up identical amounts of instant chocolate drink in four different kinds of milk, ranging from skim milk to half-and-half. The differences are striking. Chocolate made with skim milk gives an intense burst of chocolate flavor that vanishes almost instantly. “It comes rushing out—it’s not balanced,” says Sobel. With 2 percent milk, the initial hit is less intense, but the flavor lingers a bit, and that’s even more true of whole milk. The chocolate made from half-and-half, in contrast, has a much more muted flavor, but its richness lasts and lasts. Which is best? Try the experiment yourself at home, and see which you prefer.

Even after flavorists have built and balanced their flavor perfectly for its chosen base, the job’s not done. There’s one more big problem to solve: delivery. Sometimes you can’t just dump the finished flavor straight into the food—adding liquid flavor to, say, instant oatmeal would result in a gummy mess. And often, the flavor needs to be protected so that it survives the journey from manufacturer to mouth. Exposure to air can oxidize some flavor molecules. Others—especially the volatile top notes of a flavor—are prone to just drift away, so that the flavor loses its oomph over time. Flavor decay can also happen in protein-rich foods because the sulfur atoms within proteins gradually latch on to the flavor molecules and prevent their release in your mouth. (This binding by proteins is why the smell of campfire smoke can lurk on your [protein-rich] hair, emerging when your hot shower adds enough energy to knock some scent molecules loose again.) And occasionally, the flavor and the food simply declare war on each other, such as when garlic oil prevents bread dough from rising.

The answer to almost all of these problems lies in a strategy called encapsulation. Usually, the tool of choice for this is a machine called a spray dryer, which blasts a fine mist of liquid flavor and a protective coating such as starch into a heated chamber to yield fine particles of flavor enclosed in a dry shell of starch. Mary McKee, one of Givaudan’s flavor-delivery specialists, shows me a more sophisticated version called a fluid-bed dryer, which suspends the mixture in a strong updraft of air to keep the granules from clumping as they dry. Right now, the machine has lime-green granules bumping up and down in it like bread crumbs in a blender.

McKee, a tall, slender woman whose large eyes seem even larger because of her wraparound safety glasses, opens a port on the machine and dumps a little pile of the granules into my hand. They taste vividly of lime—partly because of the flavor, partly because the color provides a congruent visual cue, and partly because of another trick of the delivery. “When you taste a lime flavor by itself, it’s very terpeney with some top notes. We can spray dry that, and it’s fine,” she says. But in the real world, lime has acid, too, so she spray dried the lime flavor on to crystals of citric acid. Now her flavor granules deliver not just the flavor of the lime, but its citric puckeriness as well. The possibilities here are almost endless. “If we were to spray the same flavor on salt, it would taste very different,” she says. Margaritas, anyone? As another example, McKee pulls out a vial of dried oregano leaves coated with jalapeño flavor. Or you could use the same approach to flavor tea leaves. “You can basically coat anything that you can fluidize,” she says.

Another technology, which Givaudan has patented, lets them load flavor inside an insoluble capsule without spray drying, and therefore without risking damage to volatile flavorants during heating. The capsules shear easily when you rub or chew them, releasing their flavor intact. Flavors protected like this are perfect in something like the breading on chicken, says McKee, because you can fry the chicken without losing the flavor during cooking. In fact, liquid garlic flavor encapsulated in this way would deliver the same flavor impact as six times as much unencapsulated flavor—a huge cost savings to the producer.

Once a new flavor is finished, the company can move on to the last step of the product development process: testing the final product on consumers. Testing panels actually come in two different sorts, as different as the apples and oranges (among other things) that they evaluate: consumer panels and trained panels. The most straightforward are simple consumer panels drawn from the general public. These untrained panelists are just like you and me—they would struggle for words if asked to describe exactly the flavor of a particular sample. And even if they can find a word, there’s little consistency from one panelist to the next. What one calls “fragrant” in the flavor of an apple, for example, another might call “flowery,” and a third “sweet.” So flavor testers generally don’t ask consumer panels to describe flavors. Instead, they stick to simpler questions like “Do you like this?” and “Are these two samples the same or different?”

These are exactly the questions that you want to ask the untrained masses, and Big Food desperately needs to know our answers. Obviously, if you’re planning to sell something, you want to know if consumers are buying. Hence, “Do you like this?” and variants such as “Would you buy this?” Even here, though, it’s important to make sure you’re asking not just the general public, but the right segment of the public. If you’re marketing a cheap flavored coffee to be sold at convenience stores, you don’t really care what the Starbucks drinkers or the hard-core espresso geeks think of it—you want to ask the folks who actually buy their coffee at 7-Eleven.

Companies often also need to know whether they can cut costs without consumers noticing, so they care a lot about “Same or different?” questions. Unlike the “Do you like this?” question, you can’t just ask people outright, because that’s an invitation to imagine differences even where none exist—the same overeager pattern recognition that creates puppy dog shapes in clouds and an image of the Virgin Mary in a grilled-cheese sandwich. Instead, testers give their subjects three samples and ask them to say which one is different—the same triangle test that Joel Mainland gave me when I participated in his “Does this compound have a smell?” study. Sometimes, test organizers use a variant of the triangle test called a tetrad test, in which participants get four samples—two of each—and group them into like pairs. The tetrad test turns out to be much more sensitive than the triangle test, so you need to test fewer participants to be confident of the result.

One winter’s day, I got the chance to be part of a consumer panel in the city where I live. I followed directions to a downtown office building, then found my way to the far end of a long, dimly lit hallway not far from the stairwell. Behind a nondescript door that might have fronted a private-eye’s office or a low-budget dentist, I found a small, rather austere waiting room containing a handful of other people. Soon the organizers ushered us into the testing room, a row of perhaps a dozen small carrels against an L-shaped wall. Behind the wall, I knew, was the kitchen area where staff prepared the samples we were to evaluate.

My carrel had side walls to shield me from seeing what the others were up to, a computer display with a mouse, a cup of water, two saltine crackers, a napkin dispenser, and a bottle of Purell Hand Sanitizer. On the back wall of the carrel was a pass-through with a hinged cover that soon opened to reveal a tray containing a numbered plastic cup (#553) with some pieces of roasted red pepper inside. Aha. I guess we’re tasting red pepper.

The computer screen lights up with a question: “How much do you like #553 overall?” It offers a nine-point scale ranging from “Dislike extremely” through “Neither like nor dislike” to “Like extremely.” I take a bite. The sample’s not bad, so I pick seven, “Like moderately.” Then the computer asks, in turn, how much I like the flavor, the appearance, and the texture of #553, and finally, whether I would consume #553 again. Then I push the tray back into the pass-through and close the cover (which opens the pass-through on the opposite side, in the kitchen). I nibble a saltine, take a sip of water, and relax until the next sample appears.

The next one, #310, is sweeter—unpleasantly so—and has a slightly bitter, solventy aftertaste. Is this artificially sweetened, I wonder? The third, #617, seems less roasted. The texture is firmer, but the flavor more insipid. #909 is firm, too, but has that bitter/solventy aftertaste again—my least favorite so far. And #480 is the hands-down winner, with the meatiest texture and the richest flavor. With that, we’re done. Sitting back and looking around the room, I see that most of the other panelists—who’ve done this sort of thing before—are already finished and heading out the door, like studio musicians clearing out as soon as the gig’s over.

In the waiting room afterward, the chief scientist explains to me that we’ve been evaluating a new high-pressure treatment designed to reduce spoilage. The treatment extends the shelf life of the peppers, but some tasters complain that it produces a bitter aftertaste. We’re testing whether that aftertaste is noticeable, and how long the peppers can be kept before the flavor starts to deteriorate. (Since we’re answering two different questions, we can’t do a simple triangle or tetrad test—hence the nine-point scale instead.) The panel as a whole got eight different samples—pressure treated or not, and held for two, four, six, or eight weeks—although to avoid taster fatigue, each individual panelist tasted only five of the eight. “Eight would have been too many samples for one person,” she says.

The results are likely to be messy. For one thing, every pepper tastes a little different, so a good treatment on a poor pepper can yield the same score as a poor treatment on a good pepper. And we weren’t given any instructions on how to use that nine-point scale, so each taster is likely to score the same pepper a little differently. Someone who roasts their own peppers at home, for example, is probably less likely to “Like extremely” these processed ones, compared with a person whose only experience of red peppers is from a jar or can. Still, given enough tasters—usually around eighty to one hundred people—and big enough product differences, the researchers should be able to find the answers they need. Just before I leave, the scientist breaks the code for me. Samples #310 and #909—the two I thought had an unpleasant aftertaste—were both high-pressure treated, while the other three weren’t. #480, my favorite, turned out to be the freshest of all the samples I tasted. If everyone felt as I did, that’s bad news for their antispoilage treatment.

These simple consumer panels tell companies a lot of what they need to know about their products—namely, whether people like them. That’s why consumer panels have become ubiquitous in product testing, whether for foods or cars or laundry detergents. But unlike cars and laundry detergents, where consumers can generally go into more depth about look and feel, when it comes to flavor, language becomes a problem. What one person calls “very bitter” might be another person’s “moderately bitter,” or maybe even “sour” or “metallic.” That’s why the people running my panel never asked us to describe the off taste of some of the peppers, only to say whether we disliked it.

To dig deeper into the flavor details, they would have needed a panel of tasters who agree on what terms like “bitter,” “soapy,” and “metallic” mean. And that takes training. Companies that want this higher level of sophistication in their flavor analyses typically convene a small group of people—usually just eight or ten—and put them through several hours of training with standard samples to specify exactly what should be described as “soapy” or “metallic” and exactly how bitter “moderately bitter” is. After the panelists have settled into a standard vocabulary, they can start testing the product.

In the case of my processed peppers, the organizers might have trained an expert panel to reliably assign standard descriptors for bitterness, sweetness, roasted flavors, and several possible descriptors for the off aftertaste that I naively called “solventy”: soap, turpentine, and nail-polish remover, among others. Then they could present the test peppers to the panel and learn exactly how the various treatments affected the flavor, which might suggest ways to tweak the process to reduce the problem. The catch, of course, is that trained panels are very specific: panelists trained on the descriptors that apply to roasted red peppers won’t have the vocabulary for apples or hamburger patties.

Participants in expert panels such as these quickly learn to speak articulately about the intricacies of flavor. The rest of us can take a page from their book and learn to be more articulate about our own flavor experiences. Most of us are pretty good at talking about colors, because we have a common vocabulary to work with. Given almost any color, non-color-blind speakers of English can quickly assign it to one of eleven basic color categories: black, white, brown, gray, red, yellow, green, blue, purple, orange, or pink. From that starting point, we can then make finer distinctions: Is the green a forest green, a kelly green, or a chartreuse? Does it have a touch of blue in it? (Curiously, while English has eleven basic color terms, many other languages have fewer. Some offer just five (black, white, red, yellow, green-blue), three (black, white, red) or even two (light, dark) terms. Imagine trying to describe the color difference between a Granny Smith apple and a Golden Delicious with just “light” and “dark.”)

Experts approach flavors in much the same way, by breaking up the flavor world into a handful of basic categories. Givaudan, for example, has developed its own whole language for flavors, which they call Sense It, that lets their customers and flavorists quickly converge on what they’re talking about. The details, as usual, are a closely guarded secret.

Over at Givaudan’s competitor FONA, on the other hand, Menzie Clarke happily lays out her own set of ten basic categories: fruity; floral; woody; spicy; sulfury (including onions and garlic as well as most meat flavors, eggs, and many off flavors); acid; green (including herbaceous flavors, but also green apples, avocados, and vegetables like beans); brown (nutty flavors, coffee, chocolate and caramel, honey, maple, and bread); terpeney (resinous flavors like pine and citrus peel); and what she calls “lactonic,” a category that includes sweet, creamy flavors and the peachy note that was in the strawberry flavor I made in Brian Mullin’s lab. Other flavorists, especially those at other companies, might have slightly different categories. Mary Maier, for example, includes “earthy” and “starchy” in her basic list of savory flavor categories.

Most of the time, though, flavorists and their clients are working within a much narrower range of possibilities—strawberry flavors, say, or chicken. One of the first tasks in any project is to build a glossary of likely descriptors that might apply to the product in question. For strawberries, for example, FONA’s basic lexicon includes fruity, floral, buttery, ripe, jammy, seedy, fresh, cooked, green, sweet, candylike, burnt, oniony, and creamy. A list like this gives tasters a ready-made vocabulary for comparing test flavors—and it’s always easier to pick the right term from a list than it is to conjure one out of thin air.

One effective way to organize a frequently used set of descriptors is to arrange them in a flavor wheel. The best example of this is the wine aroma wheel developed three decades ago by Ann Noble, a researcher at the University of California, Davis. (If you’re not familiar with it, have a look—it’s readily available online.) The wheel has three concentric rings, each with a set of descriptions. On the innermost ring, it lists twelve general categories of wine aromas: fruity, vegetative, nutty, caramelized, woody, earthy, chemical, pungent, oxidized, microbiological, floral, and spicy. Suppose you decide you smell something fruity. Then you move out to the next ring on the wheel, which offers six subcategories of fruitiness to choose among: Is it citrus, berry, tropical, tree fruit, dried fruit, or something else? If you pick tree fruit, the outermost ring offers choices that are more specific still: Is it cherry, apricot, peach, or apple? By helping you narrow down the options, the wine wheel quickly lets you arrive at a specific descriptor that fits the flavor of your wine. The approach works so well that there are now flavor wheels for beer, cheese, Scotch whisky, coffee, cigars, chocolate, honey, olive oil—the list goes on and on. (I’m waiting for the day that an ice cream shop posts an ice cream flavor wheel to help people pick which scoop to order. Do you want a berry, spice, tropical fruit, or caramel flavor? If berry, should it be a red berry or a blue berry? Is the red berry strawberry, raspberry, or blackberry?)

These descriptors generally break the flavor world into categories that correspond to flavors found in the natural world—that is, if flavors were paintings, almost all of them would be landscapes or still lifes, more or less faithful representations of subjects in the real world. But are there also abstract flavors that correspond to nothing in the real world? Perfumers, after all, come up with abstract fragrances all the time, but flavorists have barely even ventured into that genre. When I asked flavorists for examples of so-called fantasy flavors, almost everyone mentioned bubble gum, but they struggled to come up with many other examples. There’s blue raspberry, perhaps, and certainly Red Bull—a fantasy flavor that, I’m told, was made intentionally unbalanced, to give the impression of vigor, even agitation. In a sense, too, a generic “meat” flavor is something of a fantasy, since all real meat tastes like something—chicken, if nothing else.

(Jeff Peppet once received a phone call from someone who had the notion to make animal crackers with giraffe-flavored giraffes, lion-flavored lions, and so on. Could Givaudan make the flavors? Um, Peppet replied, we don’t know what a giraffe tastes like. No problem, said the guy. Neither does anyone else, so just give me a different, novel meat flavor. Givaudan didn’t take the project. But still, Daniher gets a little excited by the prospect of developing new meat flavors. “Why not iguana?” he asks, not entirely in jest.)

The notion of mixing cocktails of flavor chemicals to order, as Givaudan does, is sure to make many people uncomfortable. This widespread chemophobia is a big reason why food manufacturers are so leery of being associated with flavor companies, and therefore why flavor houses like Givaudan are so secretive about their clients’ identities. As Andy Daniher and Jeff Peppet put it over lunch in Givaudan’s cafeteria, companies don’t want to be pilloried for “putting chemicals in our food.”

From a scientific point of view, of course, this is silly, because all food is nothing but chemicals. The proteins in your steak or tofu are chemicals. The sugars that form the starches in your organic, local, sustainably farmed whole wheat are chemicals. The scary-sounding isoamyl acetate in artificial banana flavor is exactly the same chemical as the isoamyl acetate in a real banana. If you list all the chemical constituents of a banana or an apple—as one Australian chemistry teacher and blogger has done in fake “ingredient labels”—even a simple piece of fruit can sound pretty daunting. (You’ll recall from the beginning of the chapter that a real apple contains at least twenty-five hundred chemicals, and a Jolly Rancher candy just twenty-six. If you want fewer chemicals in your food, you should go for the Jolly Rancher every time.)

Even so, what the flavor industry does runs counter to the sense that most of us have that the more “natural” our food is, the better. Food companies want you to feel as though their jar of spaghetti sauce is “just like mamma used to make.” Industrially produced flavors don’t sit well with that cozy domestic vision, which is why you’ll never see “Powered by Givaudan” on the label the way computers advertise that they’re “Powered by Intel.” “People want to think that came straight from coffee and milk,” said Daniher, pointing to my bottled Starbucks White Chocolate Mocha. “But it’s a processed product.” The PR problem is even worse if the label has to mention “artificial flavor.” As a result, food manufacturers— especially the high-end ones—often insist that flavor houses build flavors that can be called natural.

It’s worth taking a moment to parse the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” in the flavor world. In the United States, for something to be called, say, a natural lemon flavor, the chemical compounds in the flavor have to be extracted from actual lemons. Naive consumers might think that means they’re getting the full richness of flavor found in the real lemon. But in fact, your “natural lemon flavor” might be nothing more than a single chemical, citral. (If you were getting all the flavor depth of the lemon itself, the label would likely read “lemon juice” or “lemon oil,” not “natural lemon flavor.”) Citral from lemon peel is chemically identical to the citral made artificially in a chemistry lab. If anything, the artificial version is likely to be purer than the natural stuff, which may bear traces of other compounds that tagged along during extraction. But consumers want natural, so natural is what they get, cost permitting.

One step down from “natural lemon flavor” is just plain “natural flavor,” a wording that indicates that the flavor compounds come from an actual plant or animal (rather than being made in a chemistry lab), but not a lemon. Natural vanilla flavor, for example, comes from vanilla beans; vanilla flavor made from “natural flavor,” on the other hand, usually contains vanillin, the main flavor compound, that’s been extracted from wood pulp. (The presence of vanillin in wood is why you’ll find vanilla notes in barrel-aged chardonnay or whisky.)

From a scientific point of view, these distinctions are much ado about nothing. Citral is citral, whether it comes from a lemon or a lab. Vanillin is vanillin (though extract of real vanilla beans also contains other flavor compounds that add extra richness not found in synthetic vanillin or the stuff extracted from wood pulp). And a strawberry dessert industrially flavored to simulate ripeness isn’t necessarily less healthy than the same dessert made with naturally ripened strawberries that contain the same flavor chemicals. Sure, the strawberries do contain fiber and some other nutrients, but as far as safety is concerned, it’s probably all good—at least in the short term.

There might be a deeper problem, though, that goes beyond the safety or palatability of individual chemicals. In the previous chapter, we saw how the body depends on flavor cues to select a nourishing, nutritionally balanced mix of foods. Some critics say that adding extra flavor chemicals to foods tampers with this finely evolved system and thus prevents our bodies from making wise nutritional choices. In essence, the flavor industry is marketing nutritional deceit, they argue, and this deceit contributes to the modern epidemic of obesity and poor nutrition. The journalist Mark Schatzker dubs this “the Dorito effect” in his book of the same name.

When I put this charge to Peppet and Daniher over lunch, they noted that they’re only delivering what consumers want. “There’s a little chicken-and-egg question,” says Peppet. “On the one hand, the food companies are bad because they get people to eat all this salt and fat. But on the other hand, the public wants salt and fat. There’s a question of what’s driving what.”

And besides, they said, there’s another side to the story. Added flavors don’t have to be bad. “If our customers are willing, flavor can help drive healthier products,” says Daniher. People now have the option to choose flavored, unsweetened waters—which use flavorings our brains associate with sweetness—instead of sugarladen soft drinks. Some yogurt manufacturers have also reduced added sugar by 40 percent by substituting flavorings, instead. “That, to me, is a positive use of a flavor,” he says.

In today’s world, designing flavors is almost exclusively the task of professional flavorists, plying their trade in secret within commercial flavor houses or other large food companies. But if one visionary Frenchman has his way, within a few decades we may all be concocting flavors in our own kitchens from chemical raw materials.

If you ordered up a mad scientist character from Central Casting, you’d probably end up with someone who looks like Hervé This: about sixty years old, with a tonsure of longish, unkempt gray hair, wearing a white lab coat with the collar sticking up in the back, and an air of earnest, intense—though slightly distracted—enthusiasm. But that crackpot exterior belies This’s iconic stature in the food world. He’s a household name among avant-garde chefs, a highly respected food scientist, and director of the food division of the French Academy of Sciences. Oh, and he’s also the man who coined the term “molecular gastronomy”—the application in the kitchen of precise scientific techniques and ingredients normally found in the laboratory—which has become the hottest field in culinary artistry.

But molecular gastronomy is last year’s obsession. This (it’s pronounced “teece,” by the way) has moved on to a concept far more radical in scope: building foods not from plants and animals, but from what he calls “pure compounds” such as powdered proteins and sugars, and assembling custom-designed flavors from individual molecules, just as Brian Mullin does at Givaudan. He calls the approach “note-by-note cooking,” by analogy with a composer assembling avant-garde music note by note from a synthesizer. “For note-by-note cooking, no meat, no vegetables, no fruits, no fish, no eggs,” This says in a BBC news report. “Only compounds, and you make the dish.”

In part, This thinks the world will be driven by necessity to cook this way. As the world’s population rises and fossil fuels and fertilizer become scarcer and more expensive, farmers may find it difficult to grow enough normal food—chicken, cabbage, and rice—to meet the demand. But the things we think of as inedible—This likes to flourish a handful of grass clippings from his lawn—are full of nutritious compounds like proteins and sugars, if only we could get at them. So why not extract the pure compounds and use them as ingredients? You get the extra benefit of a longer shelf life and, perhaps, energy savings from shipping powdered ingredients instead of fresh ones, which are mostly water. (Some skeptics, however, question whether it takes more energy to extract and dry the pure compounds than you’d use in shipping the fresh, wet originals.)

There’s a positive side to This’s vision, too. Why restrict our culinary flavor palette to the particular combinations of flavors that nature happens to have packaged together? “If you have beef and carrots, you can eat beef and carrots,” he told one reporter. “But if you have the 400 compounds in beef and the 400 compounds in carrots, you can make 160,000 combinations. It is like the infinite possibility of making colour from the three primary colours.”

Is it realistic to expect that you or I, alone in our kitchens, could actually mix and match pure compounds to make note-by-note dishes in this way? After all, professional flavorists need years of full-time training to understand how to combine flavor molecules into a convincing final product, whether they’re mimicking something from the real world like a strawberry or inventing something never tasted before, like Red Bull. The rest of us can’t hope to match that level of sophistication. We’ll have to start with baby steps: a few bulk compounds for nutrition, rounded out with a simple set of flavor molecules. Can we concoct something tasty from those rudiments, or is mere satisfaction of hunger the best that note-by-note cooking can offer?

I figure there’s only one way to know for sure: try it out for myself. A little searching turns up a handful of note-by-note recipes, either from This himself or from an annual note-by-note cooking contest sponsored by his university, AgroParisTech. I’ll try one of This’s basic recipes, a flavored protein pancake that he calls a “dirac.” (One of This’s quirks is that he likes to name his dishes after famous scientists, in this case the Englishman Paul Dirac, who predicted the existence of antimatter.)

I’m no test chef, so to give the recipe the best chance of success, I also enlist the help of a real pro: Maynard Kolskog, a research chef and instructor at one of Canada’s most highly regarded culinary programs at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, just a few miles from my house. Kolskog has a special interest in cuisine that pushes the boundaries, and he’s long been an admirer of Hervé This, so he seems eager to sign on to the experiment even though we’ve never met.

First up, the dirac. This’s recipe is simple: three parts what he rather unappetizingly calls “coagulating proteins”—powdered egg white, gluten, pea protein, basically anything that will set up when cooked—mixed with two parts water and some oil and flavored to taste (colored, too, if you like—This favors a bright pistachio green), then fried like a pancake. I meet Kolskog in his research kitchen, where he’s assembled the needed ingredients, and we get started.

Our first version, using This’s recipe calling for a 3:2 ratio of powdered egg white protein and water, makes a pallid pancake so dense and stiff that after we fry the thing, Kolskog can’t even cut it with a metal spatula. “Ooh, that’s dreadful,” he says. It makes me think of a yoga mat; Kolskog likens it to the weather stripping you’d use to seal a window. For our second attempt, Kolskog suggests more water—a lot more water—and more oil beaten into the batter. He also adds some sugar to the mix. This time, we end up with a light, frothy batter that fries into a much fluffier pancake. “It’s better, eh?” says Kolskog when we taste the result. “It’s almost edible. That has a little potential.” He can imagine using the dirac as a bed on which to rest a slice of smoked salmon, or something equally flavorful.

But by itself, the dirac is a little boring—at least partly because the flavor is so simple. We developed some mildly interesting Maillard flavors as the pancake browned, especially after Kolskog added a little more sugar in the second version. But the main flavor ingredient didn’t deliver what I’d hoped. We’d opted for one of This’s favorite flavorings, a compound called 1-octen-3-ol, or mushroom alcohol. I love mushrooms, so I was looking forward to the result. Unfortunately, on its own the mushroom alcohol’s flavor made me think not so much of mushrooms but of a forest floor on a rainy fall day. Pull aside the top layer of intact leaves to expose the moldering, decaying stuff underneath. That’s 1-octen-3-ol. If it smells like mushrooms, they’re rotting ones.

The mushroom alcohol would no doubt have worked well as a minor note in a more complex flavor. But now we’re back to the same old problem of expertise—to make a worthwhile flavor, I’d have to combine at least several—possibly many—compounds, and I just don’t have the training or experience to do that. That’s the big advantage of working with real fruits, vegetables, herbs, and meats: a strawberry, or a fillet of salmon, comes ready loaded with a complex mix of flavor compounds—a mix, moreover, that we’ve already learned to like.

Still, there’s no reason a cook like me couldn’t gradually learn more sophisticated flavorings. As a start, a little bit of This’s pure-compound approach might be worth working into my existing recipes. Now that I’ve got a bottle of mushroom alcohol on hand, for example, a few drops might add an interesting dimension to the flavors already present in a venison stew. A drop or two of limonene could add a fresh, citrusy lift to a cream sauce or a hollandaise. In fact, tweaking nature, rather than replacing it entirely, is what got This thinking about note-by-note cooking in the first place. He’d noticed that adding a few drops of vanillin—the principal flavoring in vanilla beans, and a key part of the flavor added during barrel aging of booze—made a cheap whisky taste like a more expensive one. (I tried that, too, and I’m not convinced. Maybe I needed a cheaper whisky. A better bet, for my money, would be a drop or two of smoky 4-ethylguaiacol.) An interesting technique, then. But the future of food? Nah. At least, I hope not. I still prefer the real thing, for the most part. And that’s where we’re headed next—to the farm, to see how our food acquires its flavor.