The ingredients in your food (and the role that flavor plays)

August 21, 2019
By Katie Sudler, Community Education Director

In the picture below, one of FONA's flavor chemists (also known as a flavorist) is looking at the ingredient label on a box of cereal.  Some people might look at a label like this and think, "wow, with this many ingredients, making cereal is complicated."

But, let's put that in context. Think about making a homemade chocolate chip cookie.  If you were to write down a list of the ingredients you added together to make the cookies, you would probably have 11-15 ingredients. Let's dig deeper -- chocolate chips have their own ingredients (add 5-10 more ingredients). So now, you are already at 20 ingredients for your cookies. Unlike homemade cookies, cereal has to be able to maintain freshness for months on the grocery store shelves and is fortified with vitamins and minerals. Yet cereal made at a food manufacturer and chocolate chip cookies made at home, probably have the same/or similar number of ingredients!

Flavor's Role

When it comes to flavor research, creation and development, most of our customers (Remember, FONA's customers are food manufacturers that sell the brand names you buy at the store.) might ask us for something like "the most natural tasting" banana flavor we can make. Of course, food companies can't just mash up a banana and add it to gum, cereal or yogurt.  It is much more complex than that, because it needs to maintain freshness and be safe to eat!

Flavor manufacturers actually need to know the chemical composition of a banana and try to recreate the aroma & flavor.  Have you ever seen how many ingredients are in a natural Banana from the tree?   Take a look at the banana ingredients, most of them you will have never heard of.  Mother Nature makes things very complex and everything in nature is made of chemicals — literally everything!  There are a few chemical components that are responsible for the majority of  banana 'flavor.' Analytical scientists identify the compounds that have the most flavor/aroma, then those chemical components are extracted, isolated, and used to recreate the banana flavor.  It's fascinating science!  Flavor Chemists (aka flavorists) recreate the flavor (or aroma) of banana. Depending where the ingredients come from (from a banana or not), dictate if the flavor is natural or artificial. Food scientists then take the banana flavor and try to make a delicious tasting food product, candy, drink or medicine.
Fun fact: You can synthesize the aroma of banana in a chemistry class - it's a simple liquid/liquid extraction and pretty cool to do!  The banana aroma is an ester and is called isoamyl acetate.

Food manufacturers listen to consumers and really aim to please them and their taste buds. Many of the projects we work on in our flavor creation or product development labs stem from the voice of the consumer. Consumers want: Sugar reduction! Natural! Less Salt! Fresh flavors! Better tasting products, with fewer ingredients!  We try to listen, but it can be a challenge sometimes...  Trying to recreate a natural product with natural flavors takes a lot of skill, brains, science and creativity.

Now Try This!

If you are wondering what's the big deal about flavors & why are flavors added to food....TRY THIS!

  1. Grab a piece of candy (preferably a hard candy like a starlight mint or caramel).

  2. Unwrap the candy

  3. Plug your nose (so no air is flowing through your nose - don't worry you can still breathe)

  4. Keep your nose plugged & put the candy in your mouth

  5. While you are sucking on the candy (with your nose plugged) - you shouldn't taste anything.  Your tongue tastes sweet, sour, salty, bitter & savory...but that's pretty much it (so you might get a little cooling from the mint or a little sweetness)!

  6. Unplug your nose and a second later you should get a "poof"(that's the un-technical term for aroma) of the flavor.

  7. This showcases why you need flavors (which are mostly aromatic compounds)

Side note: most of us wonder why banana flavoring doesn't actually taste like a real banana, do you?  Well, because the 'candy-like' banana flavor we consume today is based off of an extinct banana.  WOW!  FONA Flavorist Terry Miesle touched on it recently in his blog, and Food & Wine wrote an article on the topic, click here to read about it!

Thanks for reading!